NEW PORT RICHEY — Back in March, Pasco Sheriff Bob White took what he called a "devastating" but necessary cost-saving measure: He announced he would disband his agency's aviation unit.
He says he notified the federal government that Pasco would return its surplus helicopters. His agency was listing inventory and taking apart equipment. He told county officials not to renew the $60,000-a-year hangar lease.
"I thought it was gone," he said Wednesday. "I was told I was getting cut, and I was getting rid of everything to keep my deputies on the street."
But the helicopters may not fly away after all.
White announced Wednesday that he'd found a way to save the 30-year-old unit, thanks to the recent $4.3 million federal stimulus award his office got to hire 24 new deputies.
If Pasco commissioners approve that grant, White said he would strike from his proposed 2009-10 budget a funding request worth $639,000 for eight patrol deputies. He has backed off from earlier statements that he would request all 32 new hires.
With those eight new deputy positions deleted, White added back $232,405 to operate the aviation unit, which consists of two deputies plus a mechanic and four helicopters, one of which is used for parts. That figure does not include the salaries of those employees, who were reassigned to other duties.
The helicopters are used for everything from tracking suspects to searching for missing children and adults to assisting Pasco Fire Rescue to measure the scope of wildfires. Even though the unit was technically disbanded in March, the helicopters have been used in recent months, including a search for a woman at Starkey Wilderness Park.
"I have made it clear in our talks that the aviation unit is an important tool in keeping our elderly and our children safe here in Pasco," White wrote in a letter Wednesday to County Commission Chairman Jack Mariano. "Nothing can take the place of an aerial platform when chasing a fleeing suspect or finding a lost child."
White said that after the federal stimulus awards were announced, he realized he could hang onto the unit and said he has no immediate plans to turn the helicopters back over to the federal government.
County officials have already deleted the $60,000 annual leasing costs for the unit's hangar in Hidden Lake Estates in New Port Richey.
White said in the letter to Mariano that the commission could either set aside funds in its budget for the hangar lease or find the money to build a hangar for $145,000. He proposed using inmates to build the hangar, possibly in front of the Land O'Lakes jail complex.
White also added to his proposed budget the local costs associated with the federal stimulus grant, which pays only for salaries and benefits.
He needs nearly $400,000 in general fund dollars to cover such costs as uniforms, guns and bullet-proof vests for the new hires. He also needs $659,000 in Penny for Pasco funds to equip those deputies with vehicles, radios and laptop computers.
There's one more catch: The grant covers the deputies' salaries for three years. Pasco County must pick up the tab for the fourth.
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White's two-page letter to Mariano focused mostly on the grant and the aviation unit.
In his last paragraph, he hit commissioners with other big news: He has upped his original 2009-10 budget request, from just under $85 million to nearly $85.5 million.
The sheriff emphasized that all of that $465,526 increase reflects the higher health insurance rates recently approved by the commission — and not any of his proposed changes.
"I am pleased that my staff and I have been able to significantly increase our ability to protect Pasco's citizens by adding these 24 deputies and reinstating the aviation unit without an increase in my original submission," the sheriff wrote.
White has been under pressure to cut his budget as the county administration, dealing with plummeting revenues, cut $15.3 million from its departments and put nearly 260 positions on the line.
The sheriff's original $85 million request was a roughly $817,435 reduction from the current year's amended $85.8 million budget. The updated request that White turned in Wednesday is about $351,000 lower than the current year's.
Spokesman Kevin Doll pitched it this way: "It's a little less lower than our original request."
White's new budget request came one day after commissioners and county staffers spent nearly six hours talking about how to save positions slated to be cut, including those in fire rescue, parks and recreation, animal control and the libraries.
To restore some of those positions, commissioners had about $13 million generated by going with a higher tax rate. That money shrank to roughly $11.5 million after accounting for the new health insurance costs plus a recent reduction in state revenue.
The money to cover the additional insurance costs for the sheriff would have to come from that $11.5 million, Commissioner Ted Schrader said Wednesday. And that's something he wishes he'd known sooner.
Now, he said, finding that money may mean other positions can't be restored. And he said commissioners and White have never had a public discussion about the 24 deputies.
"Let's quit the cloak and dagger," he said. "We're trying to finalize the budget."
It isn't clear if county administrators anticipated that the health insurance increase would lead White to ask commissioners for more money. Mike Nurrenbrock, who heads up Pasco's budget office, did not return a phone message Wednesday.
Commissioner Michael Cox said he had a number of questions about whether restoring the aviation unit is prudent. But he said he would likely support the federal grant for the 24 new deputies.
"I do believe that we have a need for more sworn law enforcements officers. This is a good way of adding them," he said. "There's no question in my … mind that we'll be in better financial times when it comes to us being asked to pick up that tab."
White said he's confident his budget will come together because he believes commissioners won't turn away the federal money.
"The sense I get is they will approve it," he said. "I don't know how you give away $4.3 million. They're smart folks. This isn't their first time at the rodeo."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.