NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco Sheriff Bob White has an idea for raising as much as $10 million to hire dozens of new deputies:
Sell the old west Pasco jail and sheriff operations center.
"It's prime real estate," White told the Pasco Times late Thursday afternoon. "I want to stick a 'for sale' sign out by the flagpole."
The 50,000-square-foot building has been empty of inmates since last year, when White transferred them to the expanded Land O'Lakes jail.
Sheriff's officials said that move saved about $4 million since they were able to transfer employees, rather than hire 34 people to operate the new wing at the Land O'Lakes facility.
Since then, the cavernous — and fully air-conditioned — building has been home only to the administrative offices for about 25 employees, including White. He said finding office space at the Land O'Lakes facility for those employees should be easy.
White told the Times he has no interested buyers yet. But he figures that lawyers and developers who use the nearby courthouse and county administration building might be perfect office space candidates.
Walking through the facility Thursday, White pointed out all the steel that could be stripped out by a crew of inmates and sold. He said he could see some developer stud the walls; the creative ones might figure out how to convert the old cell units into office pods.
He pointed out the window to the empty recreation area. "We'll even throw in a basketball hoop," he said.
White said he'd only talked informally with a few architects about the idea, all of whom thought it would work.
When the sheriff emptied out the west Pasco jail, the idea at the time was that he would use it again as the Land O'Lakes facility filled up. So what happens when it starts running out of space and there is no west Pasco jail?
Major Brian Head, who oversees the Land O'Lakes jail, said there is still plenty of room on the third floor.
White quipped that his goal was to fill it up anyway.
"The world's not getting to be a better place," he said. "There are less people in Sunday school than in jail."
White said he will make his idea to sell the jail the centerpiece of his upcoming budget, which is titled "Cops over Concrete."
Though it's not his discretion, he said the county commissioners should use the proceeds from the sale to put dozens of new deputies on the streets. White wants to bump up the officer-per-citizen ratio, now at a little over one officer per 1,000 citizens.
"I think what they should do is step up and give people more law enforcement," White said. "This is one surefire way to do that."
The county and White are heading into another year of bumping heads over a tight budget.
Commissioners are asking White to cut 5 percent, and this week they also decided to move his law enforcement costs — about 60 percent of his budget — out of the general fund and into a municipal services taxing unit. White was opposed to that decision.
Late Thursday, two commissioners and the top administrator said they were open to the sheriff's suggestion, but that it's not likely to affect this year's budget.
"I think it makes a lot of sense," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who talked briefly with the sheriff about the idea about two weeks ago. "While it might be a hot commodity, is it going to be scarfed up as a hot commodity immediately?"
Even so, she said, it might be something that could be taken into account two years from now, especially considering the county is paying money each month to keep the power on and the air-conditioning running. "Shoot fire, it just makes sense," she said.
County officials also said they have some concerns about the Land O'Lakes jail filling up and the sheriff needing more room. And selling a county building, they said, isn't just a matter of putting out a sign; it'll require going out to bid.
"Does he have a buyer?" County Administrator John Gallagher asked. "If he has something in mind, I'd love to listen to it."
But, he added, the Land O'Lakes jail addition cost $19 million. "I assume that'll get filled up pretty soon," he said.
Commissioner Michael Cox had not heard the idea either, but also wanted to see more details about how the sheriff planned to handle a growing jail population.
"I'm certainly open to any suggestions," he said, "but I'm sort of cool to the idea because I think in the long run it's going to end up costing us a heck of a lot more money."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.