NEW PORT RICHEY — Under pressure to do his part in a severe budget crunch, Pasco Sheriff Bob White on Monday announced the centerpiece of his cost-savings plan: Closing the New Port Richey jail and transferring the roughly 200 inmates to the Land O'Lakes jail.
The jail consolidation is part of a nearly $85 million sheriff's budget request that cuts overall spending by nearly $820,000, avoids layoffs, freezes salaries and includes 18 new positions, including eight patrol deputies.
"We're going to have to make sacrifices," said White.
But the sheriff's proposed 2009-10 budget represents less than a 1 percent decrease from the current year — well below the 15 percent reduction that Commission Chairman Jack Mariano had requested in letters to White and the other constitutional officers.
A 15 percent reduction would mean nearly $13 million in cuts.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said Monday that White's proposed reductions were a start.
"At least it's a reduction as opposed to an increase," he said. "Unfortunately, we're still faced with a huge deficit."
Crashing property values have led to a $22 million shortfall in property tax revenue, according to estimates released last week, leaving commissioners with difficult choices that could include cutting services, laying off workers and raising taxes.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll said that more cuts in his department could translate into layoffs. "You're going to have to start cutting muscle," he said.
White touted the jail consolidation as a $3.5 million savings because he had previously anticipated needing to hire 34 personnel to operate the new wing at the Land O'Lakes facility. That wing's first two floors, which can hold more than 500 inmates, are scheduled to open later this year.
By moving staff from the New Port Richey jail, the new annex will need to hire only 10 people: eight detention officers and two nurses.
White called the transfer a "stopgap" measure and said it wasn't ideal. The new annex was intended to ease overcrowding at the Land O'Lakes facility.
But, he said of the consolidation plan, "it's either that or spending $3.6 million."
County commissioners have encouraged White in previous years to consider consolidating some of his operations. Told about the pending closure of the New Port Richey jail, Schrader said: "It looks like that's an appropriate move."
White said Monday that his priority this budget season has been keeping "boots on the street," which is why he made a number of organizational changes that put 34 deputies previously assigned to other tasks back on patrol.
He is also requesting eight new hires for the west side of the county, including a sergeant, corporal and six deputies. No funding has been provided for new deputy positions in the past two years.
For the 2009-10 year, those hires come with a cost of $630,000, he said. That figure includes about $223,000 in Penny for Pasco funds for cars, radios and computers.
Back in February, White announced he would take only about a fourth of the $2.5 million in Penny for Pasco dollars due his department for the upcoming fiscal year. The $223,000 needed to equip the eight hires would come out of the $1.9 million that White had said county officials could keep.
Hiring people at a time when there is talk of layoffs may not be an easy sell. But Doll pointed to a recent county survey of residents that showed public safety is a priority.
"We'll see if they (commissioners) mean that," he said.
The Sheriff's Office has not heard yet on the status of a pending federal grant application to hire as many as 60 deputies for 2009-10, said Doll.
Commissioners would have the final say on whether to accept that money, which would come with the requirement that the county commit to paying all the hired deputies for at least another year after the grant ran out.
White and commissioners will hash out the budget, which is for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, in upcoming months.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.