Sheriff Bob White reacted quickly last Friday after a private security guard smacked a 13-year-old marijuana suspect in the head: He jailed the guard and fired the company.
The sheriff moved equally fast to use the incident as another call for more funding, less than three weeks before a scheduled public showdown with commissioners over his budget.
He told reporters that he had executed the one-year contract last November with the private firm, Wackenhut Corp., to man the Juvenile Assessment Center at Land O'Lakes because it saved his office about $98,000.
But he said those savings weren't worth it given what happened, and he would return to having his own jail deputies run the center, the place where juvenile defendants are processed before being released to a detention center or to their parents.
"The County Commission has to step up to the plate," he said last week. "We're not going to allow one incident to become two incidents. That means increasing funding. More deputies in our jail, more deputies in our streets."
Commissioners, who have so far denied White his request for a nearly 5 percent increase in his proposed 2010-2011 budget, say pulling them into his problems with his subcontractor isn't fair.
"Obviously, it's advantageous to the sheriff's department, basically using the (incident) as a sympathetic issue for his budget increase," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "It'd be nice to give him a 4 1/2 percent increase, but the dollars aren't there."
"I don't think there's ever enough money in the county to make him happy," said Commissioner Michael Cox. "We're doing the best we can with the amount of money we have right now."
Commissioner Ted Schrader said it was the sheriff's decision, not the commission's, to seek savings by contracting services at the juvenile center.
"He submits to us a budget and we review the budget, and we either agree with his (total) number or disagree," said Schrader. "He doesn't want us to be micromanaging."
The funding for the Juvenile Assessment Center is as much a state issue as a local one. The Department of Juvenile Justice contracts with Pasco Sheriff's Office to run the center.
State funding for Pasco is around $220,000, said White spokesman Doug Tobin.
Before bringing on the private firm, four detention deputies were in charge of screening and supervising the juveniles brought to the center by deputies. That cost $318,000, meaning Pasco had to cover the other $98,000 with local funds, Tobin said.
Wackenhut agreed to take on the job for roughly the same amount the sheriff gets from the state, hence the savings in local money, he said. The four deputies were moved into vacancies at the jail.
Large counties like Pasco have juvenile assessment centers because it's a way to increase the amount of time deputies spend on the road, Tobin said. Otherwise, he said, they would have to wait with the juveniles they arrest until they can release them to their parents or a detention center.
Tobin said the sheriff will select four detention deputies to run the juvenile center.
So if it's a state-funded service, how can the sheriff lay part of the responsibility at the commission's feet?
Tobin said the sheriff views the funding as a partnership between the state and the county. He said White contracted the services in the first place only because "he has trimmed literally to the bone."
White on Friday called Wackenhut a "top flight" organization and said the cancellation of the contract "is not an indictment of Wackenhut."
So why dump the firm over the actions of one worker?
White said there were "no second chances" when it came to children. Tobin said the sheriff feels more comfortable with the level of background checks for deputies, though he also said the office has not determined there was anything in the Wackenhut employee's background that suggests he should not have been working at the center.
"I think the sheriff is saying he'd rather have the (higher) level of scrutiny by having a deputy rather than a contract employee," Tobin said.
Wackenhut spokesman Lew Pincus said the firm's employees undergo extensive background checks.
"I guess (White) felt he needed to take it in a different direction but it was an isolated incident. We'd hope to earn that contract back sometime in the future," Pincus said. "We do have other contracts at juvenile assessment centers and, as I said, it's an extremely isolated incident, the officer used very poor judgment and, well, he's obviously paying the price for it."
Wackenhut gets to keep one job it has with the Pasco Sheriff's Office. White is keeping them on to provide security for minimum security inmates who have been hospitalized.
Tobin said the sheriff drew a distinction between the two responsibilities.
"The sheriff has confidence that his staff has the experience to provide proper care and direction" at the juvenile center, he said. "Having said that, we remain confident in Wackenhut's ability to provide hospital supervision to minimum security adult prisoners on a case by case basis."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.