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Hernando commissioners reject Sheriff Nugent's plan for special taxing district

BROOKSVILLE — Sheriff Richard Nugent painted a stark picture Tuesday as he described what his operation would look like if he is forced to cut $4.2 million from next year's budget.

Gone would be the traffic, marine and aviation units. Substations would be shuttered. Community service officers, drug and gang prevention efforts would disappear.

In total, 53 sworn deputies, eight non-sworn and 13 civilian positions would be cut from his $33 million budget.

Nugent offered a way out of this public safety service free-fall.

Establish a separate taxing unit to pay for his budget. It would be broken out from the overall county tax rate so property owners could see how much they were paying for law enforcement.

He even threw in a political incentive for the board. A separate unit would mean Nugent would have to take the heat from voters if a tax increase were needed, he argued.

Thanks, but no thanks, the commissioners said.

Commission Chairman Dave Russell said the county doesn't need a special taxing district.

"If we need to raise taxes, we could just raise taxes,'' he said. He noted that if the county increased property taxes to the rate allowed by the state, it would raise $4 million or more in additional revenue.

Russell said the county and the sheriff must continue paring down their budgets.

Nugent stressed that his agency has shown fiscal responsibility, pointing to work he has done to promote accountability with his staff, his reduction of the department's debt and holding the line on staff numbers.

He acknowledged that he has opposed a separate taxing unit for years, but this year is different. "Those reasons have evaporated along with the tax rolls of Hernando County,'' he said.

If the cuts are made, he said, "We have the possibility of eliminating core programs that have served this community well.''

The list of cuts, the sheriff said, came after "I sat with my staff and asked what is our core mission.'' The answer is public safety, investigation, court security and court service.

He said he was sympathetic to the commission's own budget crisis, but he pointed out that "people want strong law enforcement.''

County Administrator David Hamilton echoed that sentiment. He said the taxing authority question was brought forward as a key recommendation from the county's leadership team and the public's support of public safety was well documented.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins questioned how much Nugent's budget has increased over the last four years and Nugent said $5 million. He cited higher costs due to the pay raises in recent years needed to keep his department competitive with Pasco County, rising benefit costs and increases in everything from fuel to the cost of bullet-proof vests.

"Nobody wants to damage your core mission,'' Stabins said, questioning why Nugent couldn't find ways to consolidate common functions with county government.

Nugent said his human resources and information technology staff had very different functions from their county counterparts. His personnel department dealt with law enforcement certifications. His technology staff had access to information no one at the county ever would.

"I understand that the buzz word is consolidation,'' he said. "But it's just such a different job.''

Commissioners discussed several other budget-related issues. They voted to freeze salaries in the next budget and use furloughs, reduced hours and a new round of early leave incentives to reduce payroll costs.

They also approved a new policy on budget reserves that sets a minimum reserve of 18.5 percent of the general fund rather than shooting for 25 percent as in the past. That frees up some dollars to help offset the $10.5 million revenue shortfall the county anticipates in the new fiscal year and for several years after.

Commissioner John Druzbick also suggested that the county make a point of asking its workers what ways they would suggest cutting the budget based on what they see in their day to day jobs.

Commissioner Rose Rocco agreed, especially since the county staff has felt so unsettled during the budget discussions. "You're going to make them feel part of the team,'' she said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando commissioners reject Sheriff Nugent's plan for special taxing district 05/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 7:55pm]
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