BROOKSVILLE — County officials and the sheriff on Tuesday will take up the high cost of keeping the peace in Hernando County and the best way to pay that price.
On tap is a discussion of setting up a separate taxing authority to pay for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, an idea that has been kicked around for at least six years without gaining real traction with the County Commission or with Sheriff Richard Nugent.
But that could change under the current climate of scrutinizing all government spending. Some commissioners, still stinging from what they see as unfair criticism last year, don't want a repeat performance during the upcoming budget season.
Last year, Nugent maintained that his office has been receiving a shrinking percentage of the county's general fund budget in recent years. The county, in turn, points out that money spent for all aspects of public safety, principally Nugent's budget and jail costs, account for roughly half of the county's operating funds.
Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said that he doesn't want to adversely impact public safety. However, he said that the impacts of budget shortages must be felt equally. When one segment of local government doesn't cut spending at the same rate as the others, the other government entities must take an unfairly larger hit, he said.
That sentiment led the board in October to consider breaking out the sheriff's budget into its own taxing district, which would then appear on the property owner's tax bill as a separate line item. This way, taxpayers would see just how much they are paying for sheriff's services.
The board postponed the discussion then until Tuesday to allow all sides to do more research. But the talk at the commission meeting might take another direction.
Commissioner Diane Rowden said staff is exploring how other counties group all public safety-related expenses into one area of the budget, which shows how large a bite those expenses can take from the general fund. Under this notion, the county could lump the sheriff's budget and jail costs into one public safety component of the budget.
"The goal is for us to provide the most efficient but the best public safety that we can in Hernando County in the most cost effective way where there is also accountability,'' Rowden said.
In the county's 2008 budget, $31.8-million of the $102.2-million general fund went to the sheriff's operation alone. If the county were to set up a taxing district for the sheriff, whatever that district would charge in tax would be subtracted from the general county government tax. The overall tax bill would be the same.
County officials note that caps put in place by the Legislature would keep the combined tax rate from rising any higher than it would have if the two remained under the one millage rate.
On Thursday, Nugent said he sees pros and cons in the separate taxing district, but he still has a number of questions.
The change would mean that only property taxes would fund the sheriff's budget; now, other revenues help fuel his budget. That makes Nugent worry about the vulnerability of his funding in an atmosphere of property tax reductions.
As for more transparency for taxpayers, Nugent said budget information is available now for anyone who cares to see it.
Forming a taxing district could create complications, he said. Would security at the courthouse, which his office now provides, come from the taxing authority? Dispatching Brooksville emergencies or responding to mutual aid calls in the city would also not be possible unless the city paid the sheriff for those services.
One possible benefit to having a separate taxing authority, Nugent said, would be that his office could keep money left unspent at the end of the year. Another could be using the strong public support for public safety to show taxpayers the need for new or expanded services and higher costs in the future.
But Nugent said there was still plenty to talk about.
"If this is approved, then I'll tell you that there's going to be a lot of meetings between the sheriffs office and county finance people about how this will all work,'' Nugent said.
Commissioner Dave Russell said he will listen to the presentation on Tuesday but nothing has changed his mind to date. He believes that creating a taxing district creates more work and more expense and provides no real benefit. "It's more government,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.