DADE CITY — Like his predecessor, Sheriff Chris Nocco proposed a budget that would add a couple dozen employees to beef up crime-fighting efforts.
While former Sheriff Bob White ran into a wall last year, however, Nocco found county commissioners were mostly receptive Tuesday to his request.
"On the way over I was looking for an olive branch," Nocco joked. "There may have been contention in the past, but I hope to start a new day."
Nocco wants $1.6 million to create 23 positions. Three would be analysts to help spot crime trends for a new "intelligence-led policing" effort. Twelve would be split into two new squads to combat prescription drug abuse. And the jail would add eight nurses to handle a surge of inmates with drug problems.
Last year, White asked for funding for 28 new deputies and a few additional staff. Commissioners declined, and White filed an appeal in Tallahassee before reaching a settlement that only covered his added pension and retirement costs.
So what's new this year?
"Prescription pills," Nocco said, citing a recent report from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission that says Pinellas and Pasco lead the state in deaths linked to prescription overdoses. "We're in a war right now with prescription pills. We needed something to attack this war."
Nocco compared this year's request to a "special operations group" attacking a specific problem while White's budget was an infantry battalion fighting crime more generally. White had proposed additional patrols in the west Pasco areas of Embassy Hills and Holiday.
Commissioners mostly agreed that Nocco needs more people to combat an explosion of illicit pills.
"We probably all know somebody who has been affected by these drugs," said commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand.
But Tuesday's meeting wasn't all hugs and kisses. Near the end of the session, Commissioner Jack Mariano sharply rebuked Nocco for spreading what he says is misinformation about budget talks.
Mariano recently received an e-mail and several phone calls from deputies chastising him for being the "lone commissioner" standing in the way of a 3 percent raise for deputies.
The raises would offset a new requirement from the Legislature that all state employees contribute 3 percent of their salary toward their retirement. That requirement helped the county balance its budget and saved Nocco's office $4.7 million — part of which would pay for the new positions.
"If we're going to have a good working relationship, I don't think you need to be working against myself and any of the rest of the commissioners in that type of position," Mariano said.
Nocco replied: "Commissioner, you're the only one that told me no."
Mariano said he brought up the potential raises at a board meeting months ago, but didn't hear any interest from fellow commissioners. Plus, Mariano said, "if (the sheriff) felt that strongly about it, he should've put it in writing" in his official budget request.
Tuesday's meeting also saw a cameo by state Sen. Mike Fasano, who urged commissioners to approve Nocco's request. Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who has sponsored antipill mill legislation in Tallahassee, said it was his first time lobbying for a specific item in the county budget.
"We've taken baby steps in Tallahassee," Fasano said. "But you can take a giant leap right now in approving what he's requesting."
But Fasano also said he voted against the new pension requirement that would pay for the new deputies.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said that the new positions are "being funded on the back of a lot of the employees." And he worried that the county might not have the money to pay for the new deputies in future years.
But he also said Nocco's presentation was the first in several years that "gives us a really good understanding, a blueprint, as far as what your intentions are."
Commissioners are slated to hold two more public hearings before taking a final vote on the budget Sept. 20. The new budget year begins Oct. 1.