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Council moves toward disbanding Brooksville Police Department

By Barbara Behrendt
Brooksville City Hall DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

BROOKSVILLE — The Brooksville City Council voted late Monday to negotiate with Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis to take over the city’s law enforcement responsibilities. An approved contract would mark the end of the Brooksville Police Department, but council members said they must be sure it addresses their priorities.

Despite the 4-to-1 vote, the decision did not come easily.

For council member Natalie Kahler, who cast the sole no vote, the gravity of losing the city police force was illustrated by a recent incident involving shots fired near the BEST Academy, a charter school near the city limits.

On Feb. 28, just before noon, the school called 911 to report the sound of gunshots outside. The county sheriff’s deputy took 33 minutes to arrive, and he asked for city police help. City officers, who were waiting nearby, arrived in 76 seconds. Kahler constructed the narrative using public records.

"Public safety is our primary responsibility,’’ she said.

But other council members focused on their fiscal responsibility and the need to reduce expenses in a city that in recent years has spent more than it received in revenue. The council had to raise taxes and fire fees for this fiscal year. Utility fee increases also are proposed, and the council reviewed other fee changes Monday night.

Even another tax increase would not prevent the problems from cropping up again, said council member Joe Bernardini. He has heard from people who are willing to pay more, but some are not and some cannot. The city has been unable to give employees raises or tackle major capital projects, he said.

Negotiating a contract isn’t the same as approving a contract, he said, and he wants to protect the 26 members of the police department.

"We have a fiduciary responsibility,’’ said Mayor Betty Erhard. "Change is never easy.’’

She was perturbed that Police Chief George Turner didn’t offer suggestions for savings, as the council had asked. Turner did not attend last week’s council workshop on the topic because he was in North Port, where he is seeking a new police chief job.

Before that workshop, Nienhuis presented city leaders with three potential levels of service from the Sheriff’s Office. Patrol levels ranged from eight to 15 employees with associated costs of $968,000 to $1.8 million. The Brooksville Police Department budget is $2.6 million.

Council members primarily have discussed the lowest tier of the county proposal.

During the Feb. 26 workshop, more than a dozen residents of the upscale Southern Hills neighborhood came to encourage a more drastic step to deal with the city’s financial hardships — disbanding the city entirely. Last year, as the council went through lengthy, line-by-line examinations of city spending, Southern Hills residents threatened to pull out of the city limits because they are taxed for police and fire services from both the county and city.

On Monday night, council members said they did not want to disband the city. They pointed to other area cities that remain vibrant even without a police force, including Inverness and Crystal River in Citrus County.

Residents voiced surprise at the idea of disbanding.

"Why is this moving so fast?’’ asked Bill Eppley, who owns property in Brooksville. He voiced concern that former city business development coordinator Duane Chichester — who suggested disbanding in a presentation at the workshop — was fueling the Southern Hills unrest.

The subdivision residents got city services when they annexed into Brooksville, but now don’t want to pay the taxes, Eppley said, adding, "there’s no free lunch.’’

He urged the council not to make a hasty decision.

"We, the people, want to keep our city,’’ said resident Craig Giera.

Doing away with the police department, said Jason Sager, "is the beginning of the end of the city of Brooksville.’’

Council member Robert Battista said the sheriff’s proposal for two officers in the city at all times, the lowest tier proposed, would mean that enforcement "wouldn’t skip a beat.’’

"I don’t see another way to go the way that we want to go,’’ Battista said.

He made the motion to begin negotiations with the sheriff, with a proposal due by the end of April. The majority of the council agreed.

Council members will continue their discussion about saving money in another workshop at 5:30 p.m. Monday. The topic is the future of the Brooksville Fire Department. The County Commission last week offered the city a proposal to take over the city’s fire services.

>>>Previous coverage:> Brooksville council discusses closing police department, maybe city>>

>>>Previous coverage:> Abolish the police. Abolish the fire department. Abolish Brooksville?>>

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