DADE CITY — As county commissioners signaled they will approve Sheriff Chris Nocco's request for more deputies, they learned the bill for law enforcement could get much higher in the coming years.
Nocco is asking for 23 new staffers, most of whom would combat prescription drug abuse. Besides two new teams of deputies, he also wants three crime analysts and eight nurses to deal with inmate addiction issues at the county jail.
Several commissioners said on Tuesday they were open to his request.
"It is an epidemic that is affecting all aspects, all walks of life in Pasco County," said Commissioner Ted Schrader. "This is quickly getting out of control. They're obviously short-staffed in that regard. I'm inclined to give him what he's asking for."
Those new employees would cost $1.6 million and would be paid for with savings from pension costs. The Legislature this spring required all state employees to begin contributing 3 percent of their salary toward their retirement, saving the Sheriff's Office $4.7 million.
But besides continuing to pay salaries for the new deputies, commissioners will face additional law enforcement costs a year from now, when the county begins paying for 24 other deputies that were hired a couple of years ago with a grant from federal stimulus money.
The county has been socking money away for the past three years to pay the first year's $2.4 million cost. But commissioners will have to find money to pay those deputies starting the following year.
"Does anybody on the board think that the financial conditions are going to be greatly improved next year?" said county budget chief Mike Nurrenbrock.
At a budget hearing Tuesday night, commissioners gave tentative approval to the upcoming year's $1 billion county budget that leaves the property tax rate the same as this year: $7.68 for every $1,000 of assessed value. The budget year begins Oct. 1.
Commissioner Jack Mariano cast the lone vote against the spending plan, citing insufficient funding for parks. He has been crusading against new fees for parking, boat launches and youth sports from the moment they were adopted last September.
The fees were billed as a way to offset proposed cuts to the parks budget. They were supposed to raise $876,000, including $656,000 from parking fees alone. But a bungled roll out of the parking fees means collections are currently about a third of that figure.
Mariano even floated a slight increase in the property tax rate as a way to end the fees. For a homeowner, that would mean an extra $2 in taxes for every $50,000 in assessed value.
On Tuesday, Mariano said he ran the plan by several of Pasco's top commercial taxpayers, including east Pasco egg farmer Wilton Simpson, major car dealerships and the Shops at Wiregrass.
"They all firmly believe we need to really promote the parks," he said. "They would pay extra taxes. They don't mind the extra money."
Mariano's idea couldn't take effect this coming year, as commissioners voted to keep the property tax rate the same as this past year. He has said he is laying the groundwork to eliminate the fees with a future tax rate increase.
For next year's budget, commissioners have roughly $1.3 million to play with. They've already spent about $230,000 for various expenses, such as continued operations of the two county swimming pools and an extra veterans resource officer.
Whatever money is left over would go into reserves. Nurrenbrock said the county wants to boost reserves from $24 million to $32 million to help the county continue operating during a disaster such as a hurricane.
Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the sheriff's budget next week at a budget workshop, and they will hold a final public hearing on the county budget at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 20 in New Port Richey.