NEW PORT RICHEY — On Tuesday morning, county and law enforcement officials stood shoulder to shoulder, smiled and cut the ribbon at the county's first facility that houses both a fire station and a sheriff's district office.
Commissioner Ann Hildebrand called the shared facility on Trinity Boulevard an "awesome, awesome building."
Commissioner Ted Schrader called it a "wise use of taxpayers' money."
Sheriff Bob White called it "visionary" and credited County Administrator John Gallagher with the vision.
What no one talked about amid the camaraderie: The Tuesday morning headlines that White is working with the Pasco firefighters union on a proposal to consolidate the Sheriff's Office and fire rescue department.
White and firefighters union president Ralph Grant confirmed Monday night that they want to investigate the idea of having White take over the fire rescue department from county administration.
The idea had been circulating only among a small group of sheriff's and union officials until Monday night when the union membership met. Members decided to move forward with the idea, a spokesman said — but the final call rests with the County Commission.
White told the Pasco Times Monday night that he thought he'd be able to find $4-million in the budget to save the 68 fire rescue positions that are on the chopping block due to severe financial strains. He also said he thought consolidation would boost morale among the fire rescue workers, saying union members had told him they admired the way he stood up for his deputies.
Needless to say, the news caught commissioners and administrators off guard Tuesday.
"I was sort of shocked," Commissioner Michael Cox said. Asked if he thought such a merger would ever happen, Cox said no.
He said White has not been amenable to many smaller scale consolidation proposals and would not be able to find savings. Plus, he said, he didn't like White's comments that fire rescue personnel believe he would be a better advocate for them.
"It was a bit of an insult" to Chief Tony Lopinto, Cox said.
Hildebrand said she wanted to hear out a consolidation proposal. "Certainly, I'm not going to throw it out the door," she said.
But she was skeptical about how White would find cost savings too, after county administrators had spent months poring over the numbers.
"Our people are pretty good at weaseling out money," she said.
The alliance between White and the firefighters union might seem a little unusual. White, after all, had butted heads with his deputies' union over contracts — a fact that Grant, the firefighters union president, said Monday did give him some pause.
But the firefighters union is in negotiations with county administrators, who have said that a significant number of positions could be saved if the union gives up a 5 percent merit increase for the current fiscal year. And White has historically had public showdowns with county commissioners over his budget.
White on Tuesday began to step up the consolidation talk.
"We want to have the best organization, provide the best services we possibly can without adding to the tax burden of the citizens. If there's a help that we can offer there, we'd certainly be eager to do that," he said at a news conference. "I would encourage the commission to seriously consider placing the fire department and 911 under the sheriff."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.