Interim Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he likes to address things “into the headwinds” one recent morning amid stacks of white binders in his Largo office.
Although the binders take up a lot of office space, he is excited because they are part of the hiring process for 30 positions at the corrections academy. The new jobs are a sign of the payoff coming from tough decisions he has had to make because of a tightening budget, and a greater organizational mindset change that's beginning to take shape.
It's his "into-the-headwinds" mentality for balancing public safety and employee satisfaction during times of the ever-shrinking budget that has led to the innovative solutions for which he's most proud — not just since Gov. Rick Scott appointed him sheriff after Jim Coats retired in November, but throughout his 20 years with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
"Anybody can sail the ship in calm waters. That's not the question," Gualtieri said. "The question is that when you have a tsunami, can you sail it through that in a safe and effective way?"
Breaking Out of the Old Mold
The roughly $200 million operation of the sheriff's office was once $80 million and 200 positions fatter.
Next year’s projected budget is even tighter than last year's — at least $6,000 tighter.
Government tends to solve problems by throwing people at the problems, Gualtieri said, instead of identifying the root and looking for alternative solutions.
"All you're doing is spending money," Gualtieri said. "That's how government operated. And unfortunately, I think to a degree, government operated by spending money because they could, not because they should."
Pushing people to spend money only when it is justified and prudent takes a whole organizational mindset change, he said.
"It's not easy, and you're going to ruffle some feathers along the way," he said.
He explained not everyone was happy when he moved jail employees from an eight-hour shift to a 12-hour shift.
"Some people love it, and some people hate it. That's the reality, but you've got to make those hard decisions. You gotta crack the mold. The response to the question, 'Why? That’s the way we’ve always done it,' isn’t acceptable,” he said.
The move saved $6 million.
Into the Headwinds
A little over a year ago, when he was still chief deputy, Gualtieri saw a problem.
The Pinellas County jail was over capacity. People were sleeping on floors. It was not a safe environment for his employees. A large number of the inmates were homeless people brought in on minor violations, and then, they were also bogging down the court system with no-shows. Gualtieri had to solve the issue with the added challenge of an ever-tightening budget.
So he proposed a solution to all the city commissions in Pinellas, right up to the county: Bring them to Pinellas Safe Harbor instead, a homeless shelter that could help rehabilitate them at the cost of $13 a day, remarkably less than the $106 a day it was costing taxpayers to jail them.
Most agreed and pitched in for its start-up costs, and by January 2011, Pinellas Safe Harbor became a widely partnered, out-of-the-box solution to a chronic social issue in Pinellas County.
It now houses an estimated 400 people at a cost of $5,200 a day, much less than the $42,400-a-day price tag it cost taxpayers two years ago.
It stands to save the taxpayers roughly $13.6 million per year.
The Candidate's Background
Gualtieri grew up the son of a district attorney in Syracuse, NY. As a kid, he always talked about being a cop.
"For me, it never went away," he said.
He moved to the area not long after graduating from high school in 1979, and started as a detention deputy in the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in 1982. He spent a little more than a year as a police officer with the Dunedin Police Department, and then moved back to the sheriff's office as a patrol deputy and narcotics detective for about 14 years before going to Stetson University for his law degree. Jim Coats asked him to return as the Sheriff's Office general counsel, and in 2007, he was asked to be the chief deputy under Coats until he retired.
He considers his appointment by Gov. Scott a blessing.
"It allows people to see me and see how I'm going to act and react to things. What you see is what you get. I take things head-on; I don't skirt the issues," he said. "It's tough job, and it's a 24/7 job. If somebody was to say it's a curse, that means, to me, that you are trying to avoid controversy, trying to avoid the hard issues."
Gualtieri has a wife, two children in their 20s and 6-year-old daughter who can name all the players on the Miami Heat.
Her favorite is LeBron James, he said.