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Sheriff Bob White's request for federal grant to hire 60 deputies upsets Pasco County Commissioner Michael Cox

It had been a long meeting, but that's not why Michael Cox was angry.

During his allotted time to vent, the county commissioner took aim at Sheriff Bob White and the way he applied for a federal grant that would pay the salaries and benefits of up to 60 deputies.

"We've been painted into a corner we don't want to be painted in," Cox said last week.

White had approached commissioners about the grant on April 7. The grant, part of the $1 billion in federal stimulus money, was for 60 new deputies. But commissioners, concerned about plugging a $30 million budget hole, asked him to try to apply to retain current deputies instead of putting the county on the hook for paying for new deputies after the three- year grant expires.

Cox was upset to learn that White had applied for the new hires on behalf of the county.

"The sheriff took it on himself to apply for new deputies," Cox said at the April 21 meeting. "I take offense to that."

His comments prompted a mixed response. Commissioner Ted Schrader expressed some empathy with Cox, but Commissioner Pat Mulieri stood up unequivocally for the sheriff.

"He's a constitutional officer," she said, adding that he can appeal his budget to the governor and Cabinet if he disagrees with county commissioners' decisions.

'Big misunderstanding'

White, who was not at the April 21 meeting, called the whole thing "a big misunderstanding" that resulted from "too many cooks in the (budget) kitchen."

He had no choice but to apply for new slots, he said. In order to apply for rehires, he said, the application requires proof that his budget has already been cut. A letter from the county to his office asking for budget scenarios that included 10 to 20 percent cuts wasn't enough evidence to comply with the rules.

He said the application, which was an online, fill-in-the-blank form, asked specifically for the number of deputies laid off or who had been targeted for layoff as well as specific dates. He said he hasn't laid off anyone and hadn't been required to in time for the April 14 grant deadline.

"I think staff doesn't grasp the fact that this has to be submitted exactly the way it's requested," he said Monday. "I have to be transparent with the federal government." He said if an audit flagged questionable responses in this application, all other grants would be jeopardized. The law also forbids local governments from using the federal money as an excuse to cut their budgets, a process called "supplanting."

Besides, he added, "I am not going to scare my deputies and their wives and children to death."

White said he asked for 60 spots to represent all the slots he didn't get over the past three years and wouldn't expect to get over the next three years. He said the grant also pays only for entry-level salaries, so if veterans were rehired, their pay would either have to be cut or the county would have to make up the difference.

If the county received the full amount that White applied for, it would total $11 million. The county would have to pick up a one-time tab of roughly $236,000 to equip the officers with such necessities as Tasers and uniforms.

There also would be annual costs, including vehicle maintenance, of $488,000 associated with the new deputies.

The sheriff proposes using $1.6-million in Penny for Pasco money to pay for the start-up costs, including cars, radios and laptops.

He readily admits that Pasco's chances of getting all 60 spots are remote. About 9,000 agencies applied for the money, and he expects most of it to go to big cities.

"The citizens of Pasco are going to be paying for this," he said. "Why shouldn't they get some of this money?"

Money with strings

County officials say the money can be spent on rehires if circumstances change.

"There is a provision where you could modify from new hires to rehires," County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said.

Budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said a Department of Justice official said an application could be made for rehires and there would be "more flexibility going forward than there had been in the past."

When accepting the money for new positions, "you have to see what are the continuation requirements. The continuation requirements give you real pause to think."

White said at the end of the day, it would be up to commissioners whether the county would accept the money and the strings that are attached.

"Whether the federal government says you get two deputies or 10 deputies, I'll say 'What is your pleasure' and the commission will give me my marching orders and I will bow and curtsy and thank them. I think everybody's trying to do the right thing."

Cox said he still believes White could have handled the situation better. He said White should know cuts are inevitable.

"Whoever says they don't know that isn't living in today's world," he said. "I thought we had an understanding."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Sheriff Bob White's request for federal grant to hire 60 deputies upsets Pasco County Commissioner Michael Cox 04/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 27, 2009 8:52pm]

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