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Brooksville council decides to continue discussion of law enforcement options

By Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer
Brooksville City Council member Joe Bernardini said he wants to know more about how other cities have handled changes in their law enforcement services.

BROOKSVILLE — Still trying to determine what kind of law enforcement services the city can afford, the Brooksville City Council put the brakes on one option this week — at least for now.

A divided council decided not to ask the Hernando County Commission to support a special taxing district for the Sheriff’s Office so the city could then opt out.

Opting out would mean that the city would use only its own police force for law enforcement and investigations rather than paying for protection by both the city police and the Sheriff’s Office.

The vote didn’t end the discussion about finding some less expensive option to end what some residents say is double taxation.

While council member Joe Bernardini wouldn’t vote to send a letter to the county seeking the taxing unit, a concept strongly opposed by Sheriff Al Nienhuis, he said he did want to know more about how other cities have handled changes in their law enforcement services. His vote was enough to secure a future council workshop on the issue, possibly during Thanksgiving week.

Bernardini explained his no vote on sending the letter by saying it was the county’s decision whether to go with the taxing unit.

"I don’t want to start the fight,’’ he said. "I’ve watched these meetings in the past, and they didn’t go well. The sheriff is going to fill up those chambers with supporters, and when all is said and done, they could say they didn’t want to get involved but it was the city.’’

Council member Natalie Kahler, who has spearheaded the idea of exploring the taxing unit, told the council on Monday night that she was upset that the request to the county was voted down.

During budget discussions, she refused to cast the deciding vote on the proposed city budget until she was assured by other council members that they would seriously look at options for reducing the tax burden that Brooksville residents bear by paying both the city and the county for law enforcement protection.

She said it was not about politics, but rather what is best for the city.

"There is a move in Southern Hills to hire an attorney ... and de-annex because some residents feel they are double taxed,’’ Kahler said. "If Southern Hills pulls out of the city, we don’t have a city because of that tax base.’’

She said backing away from county sheriff’s services would mean a $1.6 million reduction in the cost of law enforcement, which "is good for the people. It’s almost a no-brainer.’’

Council member Bill Kemerer said he still had unanswered questions and thought more discussion was needed. One question was whether Nienhuis would charge the city each time a deputy drove through Brooksville, even if the deputy was not formally providing patrol and investigation.

Other numbers for staffing, specific services and costs have also been bandied about. Kemerer said the council is going to have to make some sort of change, but he doesn’t know the answer because he doesn’t have enough information yet.

"These are hard decisions that we don’t want to make,’’ he said.

Mayor Robert Battista, who was opposed to sending the letter to the County Commission, said he wasn’t sure how a workshop on the topic would help since there already have been lengthy discussions by the staff and at council meetings.

But Kemerer said the council needed to be more informed before making a decision.

"It’s not as black and white as it might seem to be,’’ he said. "If we make a mistake, the price would be — we won’t recover.’’

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.