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Pasco establishes special tax for law enforcement

NEW PORT RICHEY — The budget showdown between Sheriff Bob White and Pasco administrators has become something of a summertime ritual.

But on Tuesday, Pasco commissioners took a step they hope will curtail a bit of the annual wrangling: They've handed off more of the work to the sheriff by changing how they finance his office.

Commissioners voted 4-0 to establish a special tax for law enforcement. Commissioner Jack Mariano was out of town and did not attend Tuesday's meeting.

That new tax on property owners in unincorporated Pasco, called a "municipal services taxing unit," would allow the county to shift an estimated $52 million in law enforcement costs out of the general fund.

Just as it does with a similar financing setup for fire and rescue, the commission would set the tax rate.

The rest of the sheriff's $85 million budget — which covers countywide functions such as running the jail — will continue to be paid for out of the general fund. That's the pot of money that also pays for such services as libraries and parks.

Commissioners said the new arrangement will not necessarily mean a difference in money for the sheriff, but will give the public a better sense of where their taxes are going.

"This provides a huge level of transparency," said Commissioner Michael Cox, who added that it will end the "nitpicking" over the sheriff's budget.

But money isn't the only thing the plan will shift. It will also hand over more of the politics to the sheriff, who will have to sell his budget — and any potential tax hikes to finance it — to the public.

White, who attended Tuesday's meeting, was cool to the plan, saying, in part, that it failed to account for the time his deputies spend helping out municipal police departments. Property owners in the four cities that have their own police departments will not have to pay the special tax.

But White also noted that the county's municipal services taxing unit for firefighting was so short on money that at one point last year officials put 70 fire-rescue positions on the line.

"I have no problem taking all the heat for the money I spend. … I do see again that we're in the same boat because the board has 100 percent say in the rate," he said.

Since the 2001 fiscal year, White has typically received from commissioners more than 99 percent of his requested budget, according to an analysis of county figures.

White and commissioners took different views on how to interpret county surveys showing that public safety is a top priority.

Commissioners said White should take comfort in it, saying they expect that voters would likely support his requests.

"It's your role to sell that millage rate … and based on our surveys, citizens are willing to support that," said Commissioner Ted Schrader.

White said the surveys indicated that county commissioners needed to make law enforcement their priority when deciding how to spend out of their countywide general fund.

"If the public wants public safety, isn't it incumbent on you to fund it out of the general fund?" White said.

The idea is to reduce the countywide property tax rate for the general fund since it will have to bear fewer costs.

So if commissioners generate $55 million for law enforcement with a millage rate of $3 per $1,000 of taxable property, they could reduce the general fund millage rate by $2.57, according to county finance director Mike Nurrenbrock.

Previous attempts to create a special tax for law enforcement have failed. In 1998, then-Sheriff Lee Cannon pushed for a new tax to supplement, not replace, his budget to pay for new deputies. Voters rejected his proposed municipal services taxing unit by an almost 4-to-1 ratio.

As they continue wrestling with a $15.1 million deficit, commissioners also agreed Tuesday to use nearly $5 million in two separate reserve accounts to help balance the budget.

County officials also said Tuesday they are planning to ask all four constitutional officers who get property tax revenue — White, Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, Clerk Paula O'Neil and Property Appraiser Mike Wells — to submit budgets with 5 percent reductions.

Those reductions would total about $4.8 million.

White would not tell commissioners Tuesday whether he would agree to that reduction.

Corley and Wells told the Times Tuesday they were aiming for that level of reductions.

"It'll probably be more than 5 percent," said Corley.

He added, however, that he is still tweaking his numbers, given that he has a big-ticket item in the upcoming fiscal year — elections, which will require two-page ballots because of all the constitutional amendments.

Wells said he didn't think 5 percent was unreasonable. "I'll be most likely able to accommodate that," he said. "I can appreciate their quandary, and I'll do all I can to keep my budget down as I have since 1997."

O'Neil said in an interview that she isn't sure if she can make a 5 percent cut, noting that last year her office eliminated 85 positions, increased the amount employees contribute to their health care premiums and instituted furloughs. "We're looking at everything," she said.

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

Pasco establishes special tax for law enforcement 05/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 8:46pm]

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