The Florida agency that issues concealed weapons and armed security guard licenses has cut processing time by about half despite a surge in applications, but Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the efficiencies aren’t sustainable unless the Legislature allows her to tap into a trust fund to hire more staff.
Fried took office in January with a promise to make changes at the Division of Licensing, which had come under scrutiny after reports of licenses being issue improperly.
Since then, the average time to issue an error-free application has dropped from 50 days to 20 days and the average time to review an application flagged because of errors or information in a background check has dropped from 88 days to 48 days, according to figure provided by the department. And that’s happened while the number of applications has increased from a previous year average of 13,806 a month to 23,537 last month.
“We saw the previous administration drop the ball,” Fried said this week. “We came in and made some huge changes … Making sure that background checks were done in a timely manner was one of my main campaign promises. Safety of our citizens has got to be our first and foremost priority.”
Fried is asking for 77 new full-time positions in the licensing division, and so far the Legislature isn’t going along. The state budget being negotiated by the House and Senate doesn’t contain money for the positions, and Fried is scrambling to get authorization to use a trust fund built on concealed weapons license fees to make the hires. She said the trust fund has $90 million, so the positions wouldn’t require a new appropriation. Still, she only has less than two weeks to get language in the budget authorizing $4.6 million for the positons.
While it seems like boasting about cutting processing time in half despite a surge in applications is an argument against new hires, Fried and division Director Stephen Hurm say the department can’t keep that pace. Many of the current staff is working 60-hour weeks, and the office has been open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.
“We just can’t sustain that long term. Somebody might look at that and say, ‘Well, you don’t need any more positions, you’re doing just fine. You brought the numbers down.’ But we can’t sustain a MASH unit,” said Hurm, who Fried appointed in February. “We need to have these additional positions so that we can ensure that this goes forward without taxing our folks with 15 to 20 hours a week in overtime.”
Since Fried took office, the licensing division staff has worked about 2,300 hours of overtime at a cost of about $54,000. Staff makes an average of $27,842 annually.
Fried said 19 of the new positions would be converting employees now working on a temporary basis into full-time positions. In addition to processing applications, the office has also suspended more than 2,073 concealed weapons licenses since the beginning of the year and revoked another 333. In the same period 1,899 armed security guard, private investigator and recovery agent licenses have been suspended and another 69 revoked.
Republican Sen. Rob Bradley, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said there’s still time for Fried to make her case.
“I’m happy to review it and consider if it’s a reasonable request,” Bradley said. “There is always time to do the things that we need to do to fund the operations of state government until such time as the budget passes, so I’m happy to talk to the commissioner.”
Republican Rep. Cord Byrd said he has discussed the request with Fried and supports it. Byrd sits on the House Appropriations Committee and the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.
“I am supportive of them getting all of the staff that they need to ensure that the applications are processed,” he said, adding that he’ll keep working on getting the authorization until the session ends.