NEW PORT RICHEY — The sheriff's budget for the upcoming year, with 23 new employees to fight prescription drug abuse, is personal for Commissioner Pat Mulieri.
Mulieri's brother Butch was a cop in Suffolk County, N.Y., who was promoted to the homicide squad early in his career. After a string of brutal murders, someone suggested he take a couple of pills to relieve his stress. By the time he retired to Florida, he had a doctor who gave him 100 Valium pills at a time and he was in and out of treatment, Mulieri said. He died in 1995, battling both lung cancer and his addiction.
"It is a horrendous problem, there's no two ways about it," she said. "It's touched every family, no matter what socioeconomic bracket you're in."
Last year, then-Sheriff Bob White asked for 28 new deputies and a few other staffers, primarily to beef up patrols in Holiday and the Embassy Hills area. Commissioners refused. After a monthslong battle, they only agreed to pay for increased pension costs.
This year's discussions about the sheriff's budget were decidedly more sanguine.
White's request "didn't hit home like this drug epidemic hit home," Mulieri said.
Sheriff Chris Nocco is asking for two teams of detectives to battle prescription drug dealers. He also wants three crime analysts, plus eight nurses to deal with detoxing inmates at the county jail. The new positions cost $1.6 million.
Commissioners unanimously granted him the new staffers Tuesday, despite a stern warning about future costs from county budget chief Mike Nurrenbrock.
The county and the sheriff got a windfall from the Legislature this year when they required employees to contribute 3 percent of their salary to their retirement. That saved the sheriff $4.7 million and erased a $7.7 million hole in the county's general fund.
Nurrenbrock said there's no guarantee lawmakers will keep retirement costs down.
"I'm just fearful, with the way the financial markets are responding right now, we may be right back into the same situation like we were for the last three or four years," he said.
Nurrenbrock said commissioners generally grant the vast majority of sheriff budget requests, while county departments "have pretty much taken it on the chin over the last four years in order to balance the budget."
Commissioners will finish the details of next year's spending plan at a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 20 in New Port Richey. The budget year starts Oct. 1.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.