BROOKSVILLE — Creating a separate taxing district to provide funding for Sheriff Al Nienhuis' budget was again on the table this week as the Brooksville City Council discussed asking the county to reconsider the controversial idea.
On Monday, a divided council agreed to draft a letter to county commissioners, requesting that they revisit the taxing district idea. Council members have not yet voted to send it. But, by Tuesday morning, commissioners had heard about the discussion and found themselves again grappling with the familiar political hot potato.
Nienhuis has previously taken a strong stand against the dedicated taxing district. When the County Commission was set to discuss it this spring, a quick poll of commissioners ended the debate.
That decision came months before the recent controversy over Nienhuis not returning more than $1 million dollars in federal inmate money to the county last year and failing to include the revenue projection in next year's budget until the commission called him on it.
The separate taxing district issue was raised Monday by Brooksville council member Natalie Kahler, who said she had been encouraging city officials to be creative in dealing with a troubling shortfall as they work on the city's 2017-18 budget. While the council has discussed whether the city can continue to afford both a fire department and a police department, Kahler asked why they couldn't talk about keeping the police but getting rid of sheriff's deputies who answer calls in the city.
She said her concern is that Brooksville's 8,000 residents are double taxed by paying for sheriff's services as well as the city's police service. If the county enacted the taxing unit for the sheriff's patrols, the city could choose to opt out.
"The benefit to the city is huge'' because the city could choose the form of its law enforcement, Kahler said.
She said she believes that the city's police service is "a whole lot tighter" in terms of cost than the sheriff's patrols. But her idea worried several fellow council members. Betty Erhard said she wanted more information and was concerned that Kahler had talked about the idea with county Commissioner Steve Champion.
Council member Joe Bernardini said raising the issue would "open up a real can of worms'' because Nienhuis is so opposed.
Member William Kemerer said he knew that his viewpoint would be unpopular because of the sheriff's opposition, but he also felt that he had to represent city residents and didn't like the idea of double taxation.
County commissioners also had a debate on the issue Tuesday, with Commissioner Jeff Holcomb fussing at Champion for going to council members and Champion defending his discussions, pointing out that Brooksville is in his commission district and his businesses are there. He also said that the double taxation question was the best reason he had heard so far for establishing the taxing unit as the city struggles with its financial issues.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson repeated his longtime support for the taxing unit for the sheriff, saying it would be a good option for the city and would end the "back and forth'' budget arguments the County Commission has had with the sheriff over the years.
Commissioners opted to do nothing more with the issue until the city makes a formal request for them to act.
The taxing unit idea has come up seven other times since 2003, according to the Sheriffs Office. Nienhuis responded to the latest discussion by saying that if establishing a separate taxing unit is again on the table, it should go to a referendum because "it is a decision that would directly impact every property tax payer in Hernando County.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.