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Pasco County, sheriff heading for showdown over extra $4 million for deputies

DADE CITY — He wasn't in the room during Tuesday's budget workshop, but Sheriff Bob White's shadow loomed large over the discussions.

Faced with another year of budget cuts, county commissioners weighed their options to spare some programs that provide help to veterans and the needy. But until they address White's request for an additional $4 million — some of which would pay for 28 new deputies — commissioners don't know how much money will be left for anything else.

"None of this (reserve money) may be available," Commissioner Ted Schrader said.

Earlier this year, commissioners asked White and the other constitutional officers to cut their spending by 5 percent. Instead, White submitted a proposed budget with a nearly 5 percent increase, with funding for 14 new deputies to patrol the Embassy Hills area and another 14 to patrol Holiday.

Commissioners balked, saying they would give the sheriff the same amount he has this year. Staffers then based the proposed countywide budget on that figure, with a reserve of about $4.4 million that commissioners can use to "buy back" services otherwise headed for the chopping block.

The reserve would be created by adopting a slightly higher tax rate for the general fund (an extra 23 cents for every $1,000 of taxable value). That money could also be rolled over to prepare for significant cuts in 2011-12 or could be used to reduce the tax rate.

The proposed county budget also includes new user fees at parks and the closing of the Centennial Library in Holiday, as well as the elimination of 76 positions, 36 of which now are filled.

If commissioners don't give White what he wants, he can appeal to the governor and Florida Cabinet. That could be where this year's clash is headed.

"I met with him and he was pretty adamant about wanting what he requested," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said. "He talked about appealing."

Commissioners agreed to invite the sheriff to their Aug. 17 budget workshop.

"If the board grants the budget he requested, all of the other discussions (on restoring cuts in other departments) are moot," Commissioner Michael Cox said.

Commissioner Jack Mariano said the community might "be better off" if they had places to go such as parks and libraries than if they had nothing but extra deputies on patrol.

White declined the St. Petersburg Times' request for an interview. But agency spokesman Kevin Doll said his boss makes no decision on appealing until commissioners take a final vote.

"Residents and deputies on the west side have stated that a surge of law enforcement in west Pasco is a must," Doll said in an e-mail. "The commissioners that the sheriff has spoken to have agreed the surge is needed."

Doll added that White "takes to heart" his responsibility for public safety, and his proposed budget reflects that. He said the sheriff thinks his requests can be granted without raising taxes.

The discussion about the sheriff's request came as commissioners heard department heads outline some dire consequences if their programs bear the full brunt of cuts.

The loss of a social worker to the Human Services Department could mean delays in help to "already desperate" families, said administrator Adey Reyes. Delays can also mean family situations continue to deteriorate and "more become homeless before staff can see them," she said.

The position, which would cost $49,860, was once paid by the county but later picked up by a federal grant, but the grant has dried up.

The office handles about 123 clients a month.

At least one program appeared to have three votes needed for restoration. Commissioners Pat Mulieri, Michael Cox and Jack Mariano voiced support for restoring $37,320 — the equivalent of one counselor — to Veterans Services.

Mulieri said new rules making it easier to file disability claims for post-traumatic stress disorder will result in more need for a Veterans Services job that was set to be eliminated.

"There is definitely a need for that counselor," Mulieri said.

Reyes said the office handled 2,774 claims in June. Employees help veterans receive $2.8 million in benefits annually.

True, the federal Veterans Affairs agency also handled claims, she said, but locals do it better.

"Our people are good, well trained," she said. "We just have a VA with a heart here."

The Pasco tax roll has lost $2.7 billion in value, meaning less property tax revenue for the general fund, which pays for basic services like law enforcement, libraries and parks. The tax roll that finances the fire rescue department lost about $2.5 billion in value.

The first public budget hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 7 in Dade City.

Staff writer Erin Sullivan contributed to this report.

Pasco County, sheriff heading for showdown over extra $4 million for deputies 07/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 8:42pm]
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