NEW PORT RICHEY — Last Friday evening, Pasco commissioner Ann Hildebrand was headed to dinner at Red Lobster when her cell phone rang.
It was Sheriff Bob White. He wanted to know: Could she meet after dinner and talk about a settlement proposal for his budget appeal?
Hildebrand was game. She'd spent Friday afternoon talking with Gov. Rick Scott's top aides, who were cranking up pressure on the county and sheriff to settle their budget dispute before the hearing scheduled three days later in Tallahassee.
"Their message was in big, bold, black letters: just settle," said Hildebrand. "You know the old saying, 'Git-R-Done'? The governor didn't want this in Tallahassee."
So around 9 p.m., Hildebrand waited in the parking lot of the IHOP on U.S. 19 until a dark car with tinted windows pulled up beside her. It was White, and he had a piece of paper in his hand.
So began the weekend resolution of a bitter eight-month battle between White and county commissioners over his request for an additional $4 million to pay for 28 new deputies plus other expenses.
On Saturday night, commissioners called an emergency meeting to consider the offer White handed Hildebrand the previous night: $2 million to hire 21 new deputies and cover additional pension and retirement costs for current employees.
Commissioners instead voted 4-1 to give White just the additional pension and retirement costs, nearly $945,000 that was eating into his budget. Commissioner Jack Mariano dissented, saying he didn't want to give the sheriff any more money.
White wanted more. He said he needed the new deputies and had the case to prove it. "I guess we're making a road trip," he said after the vote.
By that point, few doubted where they'd be on Monday.
After the meeting, Hildebrand was on her cell phone again, this time leaving messages for the two Scott aides.
"I said, 'Well, we'll be seeing you in Tallahassee,' " she recalled.
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Sunday afternoon. Two consultants hired by Pasco County to assist on the appeal had already flown into Tampa. Budget director Mike Nurrenbrock, who was driving up to Tallahassee a day early, had almost hit the Cedar Key turnoff on U.S. 19 (less than half way).
Then Hildebrand's phone rang. It was White.
He'd take commissioners up on that offer, after all. "He said the most important thing is the money for the retirement and pension," she recalled.
So what happened between Saturday's night meeting and Sunday's compromise? Did Scott, a political ally who has been proposing deep spending cuts, tell him to settle?
White, who served on Scott's transition team, would not say in an interview. But he acknowledged that Scott believes the budget dispute is a local issue, not a state issue.
"Rick Scott didn't get elected so he could fight my battles for me. This is a battle for the citizens," White said. "If the citizens want more law enforcement, what they have to say (to commissioners) is give the sheriff more of the existing resources."
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White said the appeals process ended up being a victory for his office for two reasons: He got the additional money for the pension and retirement costs and he "shined a light" on some of the commission's spending plans.
He cited as an example a $13 million building he dubbed "the computer palace.'' The county has planned to build an IT center and originally included the supervisor of elections office in the project. After the sheriff said the building was unnecessary, Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said he could likely make do without his portion of the building.
"We shined a light on the decision making process and it stinks," White said. "It took an appeal for them to make me whole. They were trying to teach me a lesson because they wanted me to be a go along to get along guy.
"I can work with these folks and I can do it now and never think of anything in the past, but I can tell you this was more about power than it was about substance."
White acknowledged "there are no guarantees" when it comes to winning an appeal but he maintains his agency's case was a strong one. He said he wasn't sure how many, if any, new deputies he'd ask for this summer for the 2011-12 budget year.
"That strong case didn't change just because we stepped back from going to the hearing. As time goes by, that case only gets stronger," he said. "Should I ever appeal again — it's not out of the realm of possibility — now the county understands I'm capable and that I have the numbers on my side."
• • •
County officials say the numbers remain on their side: Money is tight.
"I didn't think the governor was going to support any increase at all," Mariano said. "On the good side, staff doesn't have to spend any more time justifying their position."
Mariano and other commissioners say White has the money to help beef up enforcement: About $1 million in federal forfeiture funds that could be used on overtime.
"I'm sure those deputies would probably love some OT anyway," Mariano said. "To me that sounds like a very smart use of the resources available to him."
It's hard to say at this point how much money the two sides spent on the appeal. Both the county and White used in-house staff to do the work, which has included putting together thick reports.
County officials were also prepared to pay Washington-based consultant ICMA up to $25,000 for help fighting White's appeal. Nurrenbrock said the county will pay no more than $10,000 to cover the firm's initial work plus the two employees' travel costs.
Hildebrand said she felt that the negotiations that began Friday at the IHOP parking lot turned out for the best.
"Politics is the art of compromise, right? Nobody got everything they wanted and I don't think anybody left empty handed," she said. "I don't think the public likes to see bickering among the elected officials who represent them."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.