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For years, critics have assailed the Orange County Sheriff’s Office as too top-heavy. Its many managers and desk cops gobble up revenue that could be used to put deputies on the street to combat the county’s recent rise in violent crime. Sheriff Kevin Beary, in fact, has lobbied county commissioners to fund those new deputies; his critics, which at times have included his own deputies, counter that if Beary shifted his resources, he wouldn’t need the extra money.

With the 2008 election looming – Beary, who in 2006 registered as an independent, has not said whether he’ll seek a fifth term in November – the sheriff announced the largest reorganization of his department since he took office in January 1993.

Between March 1 and Nov. 20, at least 10 commanders at and above the level of captain have taken early retirement, reducing their number within the department from 101 to 91, the sheriff’s office says. Under Beary’s new paradigm, those positions will be converted to street cop slots. But it’s the incentive package that Beary has employed to lure those managers into retirement that has once again put him at odds with the Central Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents 1,300 out of 1,390 OCSO employees. (In 2004 election, the PBA supported Republican challenger John Tegg for sheriff.)

It’s difficult to determine exactly how much the new retirement incentives are worth. OSCO spokesman Angelo Nieves says he’s not sure; he would only say that the retiring managers received an average increase in leave pay of 42 percent. He also says that, under the new plan, management-level officers cash out 75 percent of earned sick pay, and vacation and administrative leave time. Under the old system, they were only able to cash in only 33 percent.

Tegg, who will again campaign for sheriff this year, estimates that Beary’s new retirement incentives could cost the department $3.2 million. Instead, he says that money could go toward hiring 32 deputies and buying patrol cars.

Lower-level deputies, however, get no such consideration.

Because of that, the PBA has filed a grievance seeking federal arbitration. The higher-level employees that got the incentives don’t belong to the union. The lower-level ones do.

“A deputy’s a deputy’s a deputy. That’s what Beary always says,” says PBA president Deputy John Park. “They deserve the same benefits. If the sheriff wants to give his managers significant leave and sick benefits, he needs to pay deputies the same.”

Park says the dispute is about priorities. The union has been seeking an increase in beginning deputy pay, but they were rebuffed because of a lack of funds. Rookie deputies start at $36,775 a year – which is in line with other area departments, though new deputies have considerably lower pension benefits and lower step plan pay increases. That makes keeping those rookies around more difficult.

The union met with OCSO Capt. Mike McKinley on Oct. 25, after Beary had announced the early retirement package. They asked the sheriff to expand the offer to all deputies. On Dec. 6, Beary fired off a letter saying the issue was not open for arbitration, and he was rejecting the union’s plea.

In that letter – Beary did not respond to Orlando Weekly’s request for an interview – the sheriff argued that the timing of the arbitration request was bad, per collective bargaining rules. He said the early retirement option did not constitute an additional employment benefit. And he noted that the union has often asked OCSO to reduce the number of managers, and now he was doing what they wanted.

The union wasn’t happy. “The responses are not satisfactory to the association,” union general counsel Hal Johnson wrote in a letter seeking federal arbitration.

“Unfortunately this will be a situation with a third party involved. It’s the only option when the sheriff isn’t budging,” Park says.

The union’s collective bargaining rules allow them to ask for an arbitrator when the two sides can’t come to an agreement. That arbitrator typically recommends a compromise. Beary is under no obligation, however, to follow the arbitrator’s advice. As an elected constitutional officer, he can spend the money allotted to him by the county commission as he sees fit. OCSO has an annual budget of $164 million.

“I don’t think this is the way to go,” Tegg says. “He’s taking care of his friends. A lot of them were about to retire anyway. It would never be offered to everyone because they couldn’t afford it.”

OCSO’s Nieves says offering the plan only to management is fair and will aid the department in meeting the recommendations of a county and OCSO study that recommended replacing managers with street deputies. That study suggested adding 80 patrol officers by September 2009.

“We need to try and reduce the number `of managers` so I can try and streamline the agency further,” Beary told the Orlando Sentinel in October. “It ain’t no political ploy …. The goal is to just put more deputies on the street.”

Nieves echoes that sentiment: “The sheriff has that prerogative to determine what is best for the agency and he wants to increase deputies on the street. Beary wanted to get that done as soon as possible. Our goal is crime reduction on the streets.”

Nieves says the retirements are only part of a larger plan, which includes reorganizing personnel. Two divisions – the operational services bureau and the administrative services bureau – have been eliminated.

But despite the changes, Park says all officers still have to be treated fairly and offered the same retirement opportunities. In many ways street cops who chose to remain in patrol instead of climbing the rank ladder may have more incentive to retire early because of the increased crime and danger.

“It’s not uncommon to have a simple traffic infraction lead to death or disability,” Park says. “That would encourage them to take the deal and leave.”

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