Every spring, kids in Lacoochee get a chance to hunt for Easter eggs at a party in Stanley Park. Much of the planning for the event is done by sheriff's Cpl. David Hink and his counterpart, Cpl. Mary Guyer.
Two weeks ago, Hink and his wife planned a career workshop at the Cypress Village housing development for about 20 young adults, who got tips on how to dress professionally and how to interview for jobs.
Hink and Guyer are the two deputies known as "Officer Friendly." Stationed in high-crime areas in Lacoochee and Dade City, they are positive role models for kids, helping steer them away from crime and drugs.
"They are catalysts for good in our community," said Richard Riley, a community activist of nearby Trilby.
But the popular Officer Friendly program is on the chopping block. County officials recommended cutting funding for one of the two positions in order to boost money for other social service groups. They argue the Sheriff's Office can cover the salary for the second officer.
Last month, county commissioners gave preliminary approval to a list of Community Development Block Grant projects, including $56,000 for the Officer Friendly program. That's enough money for only one deputy. The grant list goes back to the commission for final approval on Aug. 7.
Community Development director George Romagnoli said the program began in the early '90s with a federal grant. Once that money dried up, the county began using its block grant money for the program. Since at least 2002, the county has used $112,000 from its annual block grant for Officer Friendly.
"For 10 years, we've received the same funding," said Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll. "It's a little baffling to us. Why the cut? The need is still there."
Doll noted that the county's block grant is slightly higher this year, which Romagnoli attributed to updated Census figures. This year's total is $2.4 million, though the county used to receive $3 million.
The bulk of the money covers a nearly $1.1 million annual debt payment for improvements in Dade City's Tommytown neighborhood. Romagnoli said that only 15 percent of the grant, roughly $360,000, can be spent on "public services." That category includes the Officer Friendly program, as well as money for low-income bus service and the Good Samaritan health clinic.
"It doesn't give us a lot to play with," he said.
This year, the county boosted the Good Samaritan funding to earlier levels and also added money for a job adviser at the Connections Job Development program.
Romagnoli said Officer Friendly "doesn't have to be paid with the block grant. It can be paid with any source. It's a great program. I really hope through the county and the sheriff that they can find a way to fund it."
Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson said departments such as parks, libraries, animal services and elderly nutrition have taken deep cuts over the past several years. The sheriff added 23 positions last year, mostly to combat prescription drug abuse. This year, the county began paying for another 24 deputies that were added in 2009 with a federal stimulus grant.
"The sheriff has gotten 40-some-odd positions in the last three years," Johnson said. "The Sheriff's Office can still provide that (Officer Friendly position) within their total budget."
Sheriff Chris Nocco has asked the county to restore the money. But what happens if the money stays out of the budget?
"We would have it reduced to one officer, which would severely limit the program," Doll said. The second officer would not be laid off and would be assigned other duties. Doll said he didn't want to speculate about whether Lacoochee or Dade City would lose an officer, or whether the remaining Officer Friendly would split time between both areas.
Said Johnson: "That's their choice."
Asked about making up the funding using the general sheriff's budget, Doll said, "our positions are used in the areas that are needed."
Community backers say keeping the second officer is vital, whether the money comes from the county's block grant or the Sheriff's Office.
"It is our hope that (the cut) doesn't happen," said David Lambert, a Pasco County Housing Authority board member who has been active in revitalization efforts in Lacoochee. "If they're pulled out of those communities, it would be catastrophic."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.