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Hernando sheriff's proposed budget cuts less than county requested

Ed Webb, 52, inspects the brakes on one of the more than 300 vehicles in the fleet at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office recently. After 20 years with the Sheriff’s Office, the shop supervisor says the mechanics do everything to reduce costs.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Ed Webb, 52, inspects the brakes on one of the more than 300 vehicles in the fleet at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office recently. After 20 years with the Sheriff’s Office, the shop supervisor says the mechanics do everything to reduce costs.

BROOKSVILLE — Despite shedding $1.27 million in his agency's expenses, Sheriff Al Nienhuis' first budget proposal still fell well short of the $2.5 million county commissioners had asked him to cut.

Combined with a $250,000 increase in anticipated revenue, the sheriff said Wednesday the savings to the county would exceed $1.5 million.

However, county officials disputed the sheriff's figures, saying the anticipated revenue in the upcoming budget would actually fall from the current year's amount.

Officials on both sides said they will likely sort out the discrepancies at Tuesday's County Commission meeting.

County Commissioner Jeff Stabins said Nienhuis was off to a good start in the lengthy budget-making process but stressed that the new sheriff needed to expunge even more dollars from his proposal.

"If there is any portion of the budget that still can be further scrutinized for additional cuts, it's the Sheriff's Department," Stabins said. "That's where the money is. I know it, and the sheriff knows it, too.''

But, Nienhuis said, the public would likely suffer if he made many more reductions.

"The public has already felt it with us cutting some of the programs last year," he said. "I think this budget is reasonable and necessary for the operation of the Sheriff's Office."

The agency's expenditures make up about 85 percent of the total budgets of the five constitutional offices this fiscal year. Combined, commissioners had requested that the constitutionals find $3 million in savings from their budgets.

The vast majority of the sheriff's cuts resulted from a $1.6 million reduction in employee retirement benefits.

The sharp decreases came as result of a new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott in May that will require public employees to put 3 percent of their salaries toward their retirement benefits starting in July.

In a memo detailing his first budget since taking over as sheriff Jan. 1, Nienhuis also noted that employees would have their wages frozen for the third consecutive year and two more deputy positions — in the marine unit — would be eliminated, bringing the total job cuts to 40 since fiscal year 2008-09.

The sheriff also projected a drop in jail costs of about $270,000 and said inmates are estimated to work more than 120,000 hours cleaning roadways, medians and facilities in the next fiscal year — a value to the county that exceeds $1.1 million.

Much of the nearly 20 percent boost in anticipated revenue also is coming from fees from the detention center.

In its final 330 days running the jail, the Corrections Corporation of America collected and remitted to the county just $36,878 in fees from inmates for booking, medical and Social Security.

This fiscal year, Nienhuis wrote, his office will likely collect more than seven times that much from those same fees.

"We're collecting a lot of revenue that wasn't being collected before," said Bureau Chief Bill Kicklighter, adding that he wasn't sure if CCA was collecting that additional money or what the company was doing with it. The company was contracted to run the facility for 22 years until the Sheriff's Office took over operations in August.

In his memo, the sheriff said he understood the county's financial challenges, but re-emphasized the need for a properly funded agency.

"We at the Sheriff's Office see firsthand the effects the weak economy has on our citizens," Nienhuis said in the memo. "Because of this, we have a strong desire to be a team player when it comes to cutting costs. Unfortunately, we must balance this desire with the reality that we respond to labor-intensive emergencies daily.

"Events like death investigations and small plane crashes require an immediate, and often prolonged, response that can use hundreds of hours of unscheduled resources," he wrote. "I truly believe this budget balances both our public safety responsibilities with our responsibility to cut cost."

Photojournalist Will Vragovic and staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

• County Sheriff Al Nienhuis recommended cutting $1.27 million.

• That's 3.04 percent less than the current budget.

• County commissioners had asked Nienhuis to cut $2.5 million.

Hernando sheriff's proposed budget cuts less than county requested 06/01/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 8:33pm]
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