The Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to grant the county’s corrections officers and full-time lifeguards a one-time bonus of $1,421.
Roughly 100 corrections officers and four full-time lifeguards are eligible for the bonus. Some officers, who are newer to the force, were not eligible for the bonus. In all, the bonus will cost $149,000 for both groups and will be taken from money that would have been used to pay for positions that have not been filled.
“You are in this old facility. I mean, honestly, I don’t know what would make someone want to be a corrections officer,” said District 2 Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, “They go inside out of the sunlight for at least eight hours a day, in a tough facility and do the work. I mean, I would rather do some other things with my life; it’s really a tough job. And yet, we thank them because without them – there wouldn’t be anyone to guard the jail.”
Earlier this year, Governor Ron DeSantis announced a similar bonus for sworn law enforcement and first responders from the state. However, the bill passed by the Florida legislature specifically excluded corrections officers and did not include lifeguards, according to the agenda packet item supplied by Okaloosa County.
Interim Chief Nolan Weeks, the Okaloosa Corrections Department’s fourth leader in five years, told the commission that his officers have had a rough go due to COVID in the last couple of years – and that their positions, unlike other law enforcement and first responders, forced them to be close to at-risk populations for hours at a time. “I just want to remind everyone that law enforcement was able to change things in how they operate as far as what calls they respond to,” Weeks said, “Officers were able to use officer discretion during the height of COVID to try and prevent exposure. Corrections officers do not have that ability. They don’t get to choose who they get to deal with, and they are constantly in an enclosed environment with all of those folks that law enforcement brings. So, in my opinion, corrections officers are at a heightened level more so than law enforcement because they are mandated to stay within that enclosed environment with all of those folks. We are one of many corrections agencies that had a line-of-duty death. I have no problem voicing my approval for this, and I hope that you all feel the same way.”
In his post-meeting Facebook live meeting with Commissioner Nathan Boyles, Commissioner Paul Mixon underscored the necessity of the bonus in the current economy. “We need to show the same appreciation to them what’s happening statewide,” Mixon said, “It’s important enough for us to move [money] to be able to show that appreciation and, frankly, retain the employees we have and show them that we appreciate them and push them to continue to do better.”
Okaloosa County’s Jail has had several leadership turnovers recently. In the last five years, the jail has had four directors. In addition to the turnover at the leadership level – many corrections officers typically leave the profession before they have served a full year, according to a 2021 article from Politico.
Whatever the reasons each individual officer gives for leaving – or a potential recruit gives to not sign up to serve, the Okaloosa County Corrections Department is short roughly 40 corrections officers right now, according to county staff.
With the issues the jail faces, Commissioner Boyles noted that he would give the operation of the jail to the sheriff in a heartbeat. “Sheriff Aden,” Boyles said into the lens on the Facebook live meeting, “if you are watching and would like to take the jail, by all means, I’m willing to sponsor that agenda item.”
Commissioner Mixon responded to Boyles by letting him know that he had talked to the Sheriff about the jail situation recently and told his fellow commissioner, “I won’t tell you his exact words, but he said no.”
Earlier, during the regular meeting, Mixon noted that pay parity was essential to keeping staffing levels from dropping even further. “We face a time of being a great harvest field for other agencies to look and see who is good and who is worth keeping and what can Okaloosa not do for them so that we can hang a carrot. And I believe that in this move from the state, that is what we are seeing. [The State Legislature has] put a caveat on the eligibility – removing BCC corrections entities – allowing us to be prey to hiring movements that are happening all around us. This is another step that would help secure the ones that we have,” said Mixon.
No doubt, commissioners and staff expressed concern about the number of staff leaving corrections over the last couple of years.
But, Commissioner Nathan Boyles, Vice Chairman of the Okaloosa County Commission, expressed doubts about throwing money at the problem as a one-time bonus.
“There’s a whole lot of onions on this layer that make me uncomfortable and not doing it makes me just ever-so-slightly more uncomfortable,” Commissioner Boyles told the group as they prepared to vote.
“These one-offs don’t really address the issue of compensation for the work being performed and it doesn’t allow a lifeguard or a corrections officer to really be able to go home and be able to tell their spouse how much they can budget for next year. It doesn’t really achieve any of the goals, quite frankly, that I think we should be considering when we talk about compensation. So it feels to me knee-jerk in that regard. I understand the reason we want to do it – so that we are not viewed as uncompetitive with our neighbors,” said Boyles.
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