Randy Wayne White: FWS cops, biologists deserve raise



I hoped it would be a snowy day on Duval Street before the Legislature required my advice on business, but someone needs to speak out about a glaring wrong before the big chill descends. Consider: Florida makes more money from fishing, hunting and boating than any state in the nation, yet we pay our biologists and law enforcement pros like a bankrupt, landlocked and butt-ugly tourist pariah. Florida ranks 40th or worse in most salaried categories.

That’s bad business.

Our Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) professionals have never had an equitable pay adjustment.

That’s unwise. A business maxim: If employees aren’t paid what they’re worth, motivation is the first casualty, and personal work product will descend to the level of income. Or they will leave.

Rick Scott, this is not Kentucky. Ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature, this is Florida, land of recreational plenty. We own more IGFA World Records than most countries, and are home to more birds, fish, game and roadless wilderness than any state south of Canada. It’s time to fortify the platinum goose you’ve inherited by investing in the employees who are mandated to protect it.

The disparity between income and re-investment is mind-boggling. No .. . it’s an embarrassment. Recreational fishing alone brings $5 billion annually into our state according to a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife national survey. That’s right, five billion dollars! New York, Maryland and California tie for a distant second and third, earning about half that. Add boating, hunting, and scuba revenue and we blow all other states away in comparison.

Yet, Maryland, California and others pay their biologists and state law enforcement officers about double what we pay ours. Worse, 90 percent of U.S. states competing for our recreational dollars are luring, and keeping, the best talent in these fields for a simple reason: Most of them pay competitive wages.

Florida does not.

How oblivious is Tallahassee to the situation? Deaf, dumb and indifferent judging from data compiled from the same national survey, trade magazines and Internet sources. Salaries for fish-and-game law enforcement officers are an example. The seven top paying states are: Maryland, California, Nevada, Washington, Wyoming, Indiana and Idaho.

Now skip to the bottom seven: Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida, South Dakota, Georgia and Utah.

A simple comparison: In Maryland, the median salary for an experienced fish-and-game officer is $67,400. Florida? $39,400. If you are not yet embarrassed, I have three names for you: Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas. That’s right, this nation’s poorest states exhibit a business savvy our own Legislature lacks. Even they take better care of their wildlife professionals.

Let’s get to specifics. According to a study published in the April 2013 edition of Fisheries Magazine, Florida ranks 46th in the U.S. in what we pay our second-level biologists ($36,500.) We’re talking about scientists with PhDs who have already proven themselves in the workplace and in their fields!

Okay, now imagine you have recently graduated from a top university, valedictorian of your class as a biology major. It’s time to find an entry (level one) position, so you study the marketplace for starting salaries. Will you apply to Florida’s FWC ($32,600,) or purchase mittens and go to work for Virginia ($53,500) or Wisconsin ($50,745) or Wyoming ($50,300)?

Do I need to point out that two of these three states are landlocked? Yet they place more value on a fisheries biologist than Florida, the birthplace of big game fishing, but the stumbling heir to a $5 billion annual legacy.

I’m not saying our FWC doesn’t have some superb biologists — we do. Florida’s charms and good luck are to thank for that. But how can we keep the best and brightest, or attract fresh talent, if we continue the pound-foolish stratagems of a miserly, third-rate tourist attraction?

We won’t. Not in this economy. In the words of Buffett (Warren, and maybe Jimmy, too): "Hire the best people, pay them well, and success will take care of itself."

More troubling is the financial indifference shown our FWC law enforcement officers (about whom, during my 40 years in Florida, I have yet to hear a hint of scandal). Let’s imagine another scenario: You are a top prospect from a police academy, the military, or a university program. After a lengthy hiring process (including a microscopic background check and polygraph tests) you are then trained by some of the best law enforcement pros in the business. Your job: Patrol Florida’s backcountry alone by boat, car, airboat or on foot.

Fun, huh?

Keep reading.

Unlike conventional police work, you are guaranteed, on a daily basis, to interact with strangers who are well armed — deer rifles, shotguns; boaters with bang sticks or spearguns. Responsible hunters and divers don’t guzzle beer, but not all people you encounter will be responsible. Nor will some react calmly when they’re sited for a game law violation. The good news? You’re carrying a radio and a gun. Bad news? You are alone, in a remote area, and the lawbreakers have their guns loaded and ready when you appear.

To date, 17 officers sworn to protect Florida’s outdoor resources have died in the line of duty. The first was on Christmas Eve, 1950, when officer James R. Fields was shot-gunned to death by men he caught poaching — an Everglades scenario that has repeated itself too many times. Records don’t reveal the fate of Officer Field’s wife and three children, nor the fates of families orphaned by Florida’s other fallen wildlife officers. In the most recent incident (2009), FWC officer Vann Streety stopped a suspect in a wooded area of Brevard County. He was shot six times, but survived.

Your starting salary for all this excitement? $32,836. That’s less than many small town police departments pay, and about twelve grand lower than what rookies earn in a bunch of swampless, landlocked states that excel in corn, not tarpon, bonefish and coral reefs. No wonder a high percentage of our FWC officers, after a few years on the job, leave the department for better paying jobs with other law enforcement agencies.

Talk about a financial blunder! After investing about $70,000 in training a fine young prospect, we then pay him or her so poorly that, two or three years later, we must then invest another $70,000 to train his or her replacement.

I’m a writer by trade, not a businessman, but even I know that’s dumb!

Outdoor recreation in Florida is a money making machine. Our machine specialists need tending. I know too many smart legislators to believe they’re indifferent to this inequity, so it’s my hope they are simply unaware. A retroactive pay raise is in order for our best FWC people. An across the board salary adjustment for all is not only overdue, it is just smart business.

Tallahassee must send a signal to our nation’s best and brightest that Florida, as the land of recreational plenty, is a home with a future and, indeed, the Sunshine State.

Novelist Randy Wayne White is a former Sanibel fishing guide and author of 21 novels about marine biologist Doc Ford.

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