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Pasco County sheriff: Use empty jail instead of building elections center

DADE CITY — Pasco officials expect to break ground next year on a $13 million facility to house both a long-delayed elections center and the county's information technology headquarters.

But Sheriff Bob White, who has been pushing for more funding for his office, has pitched another idea in a tight budget year: Scrap the new construction and locate those facilities at the now-empty New Port Richey jail.

"It's a gift, it's an absolute gift," White told the Times, saying that the money saved on a new building "funds my west side surge and more for five years. … Right now we're going to spend $13 million on a capital project, when what our citizens need … is more protection."

County officials have their doubts about the costs of converting the 50,000-square-foot jail rather than moving ahead with the new facility, roughly the same size, on McDonald Street in Dade City.

"Use the jail?" Commissioner Ted Schrader asked. "Obviously the sheriff is forgetting that Dade City is the county seat. … No, that's not even something I want to consider."

Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley and Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson, who oversees facilities, expressed reservations about whether the jail would work for their plans.

Corley said his elections service center, planned since 2003, is not just a bigger warehouse for storing thousands of state-mandated privacy booths and other election equipment.

It will also house a communications database plus have space for training.

"All things begin and end in that facility," he said. "It's not as simple as just throwing the things in a corner."

Officials have put the project on the back burner amid budget cuts and other projects, including the expansion of the Land O'Lakes jail in 2006. Along the way, they got an idea to partner with Corley on the building, putting their data processing facility on the second floor.

Johnson said the county had been shopping around for a new IT facility — it hired an architect back in 2008 — for several years. Officials say the current building, also located in Dade City, needs more space, better security and upgraded technology infrastructure.

He acknowledged that the old jail would be adequate for many of their needs but questioned the renovation costs and the potential delay.

"We're far enough along and (Corley) needs to have the building completed," Johnson said. "We're fast-tracking it now."

Construction is expected to get under way this year and run into late next year, with the goal of having the center fully operational by January 2012.

Most of the money — around $10.9 million — comes from the general fund, which pays for basic services such as law enforcement, libraries and parks. The rest will come from proceeds from a half-cent sales tax bond.

White has previously proposed selling the jail, which was emptied last year when inmates were moved to the expanded Land O'Lakes facility. His "Cops over Concrete" budget request called for using the proceeds from the sale to pay for new deputies.

Commissioners expressed doubts about the viability of selling the building but agreed to have county officials look into the renovation costs.

White, who continues using the jail for storage, said he thinks it's a good site for the county's needs.

"You can huff and puff but you can't blow that house down," he said. "It's solid gold. It's really a perfect place for something as important as a data center."

White may appeal his budget, which commissioners voted to keep flat and which he wanted about $4 million higher, in large part to pay for 28 new deputies. He said he'll announce his decision after the commission's final budget hearing on Tuesday.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco County sheriff: Use empty jail instead of building elections center 09/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 9:54pm]

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