BROOKSVILLE — A showdown is looming between the cash-strapped County Commission, trying to find ways to balance next year's budget, and Sheriff Al Nienhuis, whose agency eats up a considerable part of the spending plan.
The commission wants the sheriff to trim $1.3 million, noting that they have made drastic cuts in recent years while the agency has largely been spared such pain.
They also note that the current budget proposal shows that $41 million of the $91 million general fund is dedicated to public safety spending, including the Sheriff's Office and operating the county jail.
But Nienhuis said Wednesday that, while he has continued to look for cuts, he doesn't anticipate finding any significant money to shed from his budget.
"I know they have a very difficult issue and I'm committed to working with them," he said, "but at the same time, I have to balance my absolute mandate to keep the county safe."
With the County Commission approaching a key deadline in its budget process, Chairman Jim Adkins invited Nienhuis to next week's meeting.
Nienhuis responded by offering to set up individual times with commissioners to meet in his office with him and his staff so they could show the efficiency of his operation and answer commissioner concerns.
He wrote, "feel free to let me or my assistant know if there is a particular area of the Sheriff's Office that you would like to personally visit or discuss in detail so we can adequately prepare to address your concerns.''
He won't have many takers.
"The time for talking is over,'' Commissioner Jeff Stabins said Wednesday. "This not a game that the sheriffs of the world get to play with their county commissions and taxpayers.''
County Commissioner Wayne Dukes also didn't plan a visit to the sheriff.
"I don't intend to go,'' he said. "It's gotten to the point now that, I appreciate the sheriff, I appreciate his input, but I believe we need to have this meeting with the commission on all the pieces.''
Commissioner Dave Russell isn't going, either.
"I visited the sheriff several weeks ago in his office,'' he said. "At this point, I'm familiar with his operations and I'm familiar with his predecessor.''
Russell said he expected the sheriff to cut the amount he was asked to trim. Just how much the sheriff can cut is significant because on Tuesday, the commission must weigh the financial and political variables still evolving and set a tentative tax rate that cannot be raised without considerable expense before the final budget is adopted in late September.
Sheriff's spending has long been a hotly debated topic at budget time. For the last several years, commissioners have questioned both the spending by former Sheriff Richard Nugent on law enforcement and the cost of the jail, which the sheriff took over last year.
Several months ago, the county's leadership team provided budget cut targets to each of the county's elected constitutional officers. But Nienhuis presented a spending plan that fell $1.3 million short on what he was expected to cut.
Still, Nienhuis said, he believes the two sides will reach a compromise.
"I'm not being adversarial with them," the sheriff said of the commissioners. "I'm sure we'll get through this."
Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams actually increased her budget.
Now county officials are counting on Nienhuis finding that $1.3 million to cut and Williams cutting $253,000.
Williams did not return phone calls seeking comment on whether she would attend Tuesday's County Commission meeting or what budget cuts she might still be considering.
Whether Nienhuis attends Tuesday's meeting, he said, will depend on if the commissioners have all their questions answered ahead of time. He said he was reluctant to take deeper cuts.
Nearly 90 percent of his costs relate to personnel, Nienhuis said, which means any major cuts would have to come through layoffs. Though he's heard some criticism of the agency's large civilian workforce, the sheriff noted that those people serve a variety of valuable functions and, if lost, they would likely have to be replaced by more costly deputies.
Nienhuis also said he will not support new taxes, which is one of the options the County Commission will consider on Tuesday.
Russell said the sheriff needs to take a closer look at his spending. So far, the only real cuts in his offered budget are those mandated by state action requiring public employees to pay 3 percent toward their own retirement costs.
"Compared to what the county has had to cut, this is a nominal cut,'' Russell said. "I believe what we're asking is realistic and reasonable.''
Stabins e-mailed Nienhuis on Wednesday urging him to look harder at his budget. Stabins noted that last year, he made suggestions that would have helped but were not implemented.
"I suggested the use of attrition as a relatively painless method of reducing costs. If attrition had been adopted for the 150 non-sworn positions in the budget at that time, your agency would be much leaner today,'' Stabins wrote. "Obviously, my suggestion fell on deaf ears as it has grown a third in size. The only cuts you have suggested so far have been mandated by the Legislature in terms of pension reforms.''
Stabins also urged Nienhuis to show leadership.
"Show the citizens of Hernando County, who have never been asked to vote for you in an election, that you are a true fiscal conservative worthy of their future support,'' he wrote. "Cut your budget now without scaring seniors by threatening to take deputies off the streets of Hernando County.
"Surely, you can do it.''
If the sheriff and commissioners can't eventually agree to a financial compromise, Nienhuis would have the option to appeal the county's budget decision to the governor and Cabinet.
That happened recently with former Pasco County Sheriff Bob White, Nienhuis' former boss. Last year, White sought $4 million extra dollars to hire new deputies and pay other personnel expenses. The Pasco County Commission refused and he appealed. Ultimately, White got less than a quarter of what he asked and no new deputies.
Nienhuis said it was far too early to consider, or comment on, a possible appeal.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432.