County commissioners preparing to put the final touches on next year's budget got an unexpected windfall this week when Sheriff Chris Nocco said he plans to return $1.1 million unspent in the current year.
Constitutional officers routinely give back so-called "excess fees" to county officials, who can spend them in the upcoming budget that takes effect Oct. 1. This year's amount is on the high end of what the Sheriff's Office usually gives back.
During Sheriff Bob White's tenure, he often asked that commissioners plug the unspent fees back into law enforcement. Nocco, who was appointed sheriff after White retired in April, made no such request this year. The sheriff's budget was $86 million.
"It's a lot better than what we've received in the past," said County Administrator John Gallagher.
The money gives commissioners some wiggle room as they begin negotiations on the proposed $1 billion county spending plan. But it might not take long to spend the new cash. Consider some possibilities:
• Saving the last two county swimming pools at Veterans Memorial Park and the Land O' Lakes Recreational Complex. Money could also be set aside for future maintenance costs. Price tag: $289,000.
• Eliminating the new $2 parking fee at 11 popular county parks. Commissioner Jack Mariano has long pushed this, though he's been consistently voted down. Price tag: A projected $800,000.
• Beefing up an economic development fund that can be used to lure a major company. The county already plans to set aside $2 million this year. Price tag: Commissioner Ted Schrader suggested raising that amount by $500,000.
• Employee raises after three years of flat salaries. The move would help offset the new requirement that workers contribute 3 percent of their salary toward their pension. But the decision could be politically unpopular as the Pasco school district sheds hundreds of jobs and other Tampa Bay governments keep salaries level. Price tag: Roughly $1 million for each percentage increase for all county employees.
• Boosting the county's $34 million in reserves closer to a $37 million target.
"I think it might help with some of the holes that we need to try to fill in," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who is one of several commissioners pushing to keep the swimming pools open. "Not having a public pool in Florida kind of goes against the grain."
But Schrader warned that the sheriff's fees are a one-time windfall. He said he's open minded about the pool proposal but wants to ensure the county can commit to keeping them open over the long haul.
"I don't want to just take this money and approve something only to have to face the same prospect of closing pools in the following year," he said.
Commissioners will begin budget talks on Tuesday when they will set next year's property tax rate for county government and fire service. The current rate is $7.68 in tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value, and Gallagher's proposed budget is based on keeping the rate flat.
To take in the same amount of taxes as this year, commissioners would have approve a "rollback rate" of $7.93. That would bring in an extra $3.3 million.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.