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Pasco Sheriff calls County Commission's funding decision 'shameful'

NEW PORT RICHEY — Gearing up for a likely appeal to the state, Pasco Sheriff Bob White spared few words after commissioners denied his last call for more funding to hire deputies.

"The deputies were standing there, begging for help, and (commissioners) dismissed them," White said after Tuesday's final budget hearing, which featured testimony from several of his officers. "That's shameful. … There's not a one of them up there that should be let off the hook."

White held off on saying whether he would appeal the commission's decision. He said he's waiting for a document from the county confirming his funding. His office already has requested an appeal packet from the Florida Cabinet, said Randy Ball, the coordinator with the governor's Public Safety Policy Unit.

Commissioners held their ground to keep White's budget flat despite a dramatic turnout Tuesday night. About 65 uniformed deputies attended, and they rose in solidarity when White approached the microphone and applauded.

Some of them spoke, too. Deputy Mike Jennings told commissioners that he and his colleagues never complain to citizens about their staffing levels; they just do their job. But he said a shortage of manpower leaves them scrambling.

"I can tell you folks right now," he said, "we need it."

Commissioner Michael Cox said Wednesday he considered a number of things Tuesday before ultimately choosing to stick by his earlier decision: The sheriff gets 75 percent of property tax dollars from the county's general fund, and he gets a high percentage of his budget requests.

"We're in dire economic times, and it's not going to get any better next year," Cox said. "I made the decision I thought was in the best interest of Pasco County as a whole."

White didn't blame just the commission. He said County Administrator John Gallagher has dragged his feet on a review of the costs of converting the now-vacant New Port Richey jail into office and storage space.

White has pointed to the jail as a cure for his manpower issues and the county's budget problems. He initially wanted to sell it and use the money to pay for 28 new deputies to be split between Holiday and Embassy Hills.

The idea to sell the jail went nowhere, so recently he has suggested the county scrap plans to build a $13 million joint elections service center and data processing facility in Dade City and instead move those functions to the jail.

He wanted his office to get some of those construction savings for new deputies, but he blamed Gallagher for not compiling the cost estimates to move that option forward.

"I guarantee you he won't be held accountable," White said of Gallagher.

White said if he had an employee who did that, "He'd be outta here."

Gallagher said Wednesday that he hasn't gotten far along with the review because the sheriff continues using the jail and because the county doesn't have the money to spend on a consultant to do an analysis.

"I'm sorry, but I don't have the money right now to hire a consultant to go in there and do a structural analysis," Gallagher said. "Until the sheriff is able to clear that building out and let me use it, I'm kind of stymied."

Neither side has had an especially open dialogue this summer. On Aug. 12 and Sept. 2, Gallagher sent letters to White asking when he planned to vacate the jail.

"To my knowledge, that's never been answered," Gallagher said.

White has told the Times he is keeping weapons at the jail and is using it for storage.

In August, county facilities manager Terry Falke told Gallagher that his department had turned off the electrical equipment and set the temperature up in the vacant part of the jail.

"Since that time, the PCSO has turned most of the equipment back on and requested that the temperature be turned back down because they are storing food items in the empty jail section," Falke wrote in the Aug. 16 e-mail.

On Aug. 19, chief assistant county administrator Michele Baker told Gallagher in an e-mail that they could move two departments, now in leased space, to the jail. Or they could at least use the jail to store county records, also now in leased space, she said.

Total savings: $250,000-$450,000 a year in lease payments.

"Still not the $10M he proposes," Baker noted, making reference to the $10 million the sheriff thought the county might fetch if it sold the building.

A Sept. 14 e-mail from a county facilities supervisor says the Sheriff's Office continues conducting tactical drills in the building and has it designated as a fallback location if there is a bomb threat at the courthouse.

Holiday-based Spring Engineering did a free analysis of the jail for White and estimated it would take about $5 million to convert it to office and storage space for the elections office and IT department.

Spring president Rich Bekesh, a friend of White's, said his team didn't do an in-depth look but believes the $5 million figure would be accurate.

"Five million will go a very long way in accommodating the needs of that facility," he said.

That was news to Gallagher.

"I suggest the sheriff would hand me that information," Gallagher said. "I heard early on that Spring was working on some numbers, but I haven't seen anything."

Commissioners on Tuesday said White's plan had come too late and with too few details for them to make a decision.

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

Pasco Sheriff calls County Commission's funding decision 'shameful' 09/22/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 9:05pm]
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