Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

DeWitt: Challenging the sheriff's budget is not war, but good sense

If you believe the budget war between the Hernando County Commission and Sheriff Al Nienhuis is over, you have to believe there really was a war.

This idea was pushed by sidelined Commissioner Jeff Holcomb, who is serving an active-duty deployment with the Navy but who seems to haves plenty of time and energy to devote to local politics by way of Facebook.

Not only did Holcomb apply this overly dramatic comparison to a dispute that involved less than $2 million, he made it clear who he thought fired the first shots: the County Commission.

"Let me be the first to call out what is really going on here. THIS IS A WAR ON SHERIFF AL!" Holcomb wrote on his page shortly before last week's commission meeting.

This set off an avalanche of likes and approving comments and, ultimately, carried the day.

At the meeting, the three newest commissioners first made it clear they had no stomach for creating a special taxing district for the Sheriff's Office — the subject of Holcomb's post — and then joined commission Chairman Wayne Dukes in approving a belated $1.26 million increase in the office's 2016-17 budget.

Let me be the first to say that the county's position was not an attack on Nienhuis or law enforcement, but a reasonable effort to hold the line on spending — and that the facts at issue are not one-sided, but debatable.

I also want to say that if this vote sets a trend — future commissions bowing to Nienhuis' growing political power — it would be a grave disservice to county residents.

It's true that Nienhuis has some solid evidence that his department is underfunded compared to others around the state.

The number of deputies per resident in Hernando is one of the lowest in the state and lower than any of the 10 medium-sized Florida counties used as a comparison in Nienhuis' budget appeal to Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet.

Per-capita spending on law enforcement is also lower than in these other counties.

There is, however, little evidence supporting one of Nienhuis' other arguments: that his deputies are in desperate need of raises.

The starting annual salary for Hernando deputies is higher than in most of those other counties, and in some cases several thousand dollars higher, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the most recent available.

The sheriff's highest-ranking deputies, meanwhile, were paid an average of $82,194 per year. That's more than lieutenants, majors and captains in almost all other mid-sized counties and more than in several big, urban counties, including Pinellas.

Nienhuis argues that because he has fewer high-ranking deputies than other counties, they take on more responsibilities.

Still, I don't know how many of the sheriff's allies have cornered me in the past few months to tell me that "his boys" are getting shortchanged.

It's just not true.

Another point: Of the 10 other counties the sheriff cited as spending more on law enforcement than Hernando, all but two have more money to spend. Some of them a lot more.

Charlotte County, for example, collects nearly twice as much in per-capita property taxes as Hernando, and Martin County collects nearly three times as much, according to Florida TaxWatch.

So, if we spend less than they do on law enforcement, I can almost guarantee we spend far, far less on parks, libraries and other services — services that can engage people, even prevent them from being a problem for deputies.

We often hear law enforcement officers complain that in their daily rounds they must serve not just as cops, but as social workers and psychologists.

In Hernando, particularly, the reason for that is no mystery: We rank near the bottom of Florida counties in mental health spending, in a state that ranks near the bottom in the nation.

To recognize this and other vast and varied needs of the public — and the county's limited means to provide for them — is just responsible leadership. And it's definitely not war.

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