NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco commissioners were talking last week about their budget battle with Sheriff Bob White, which got Commissioner Pat Mulieri wondering.
"When do we talk about negotiating?" she said at a workshop Tuesday. "Do we?"
County Administrator John Gallagher said they already had: Did Mulieri herself not offer funding half of the 28 new deputies the sheriff requested?
"When you were chairman, you asked the question. And (White) didn't say anything. He didn't want to negotiate," Gallagher said at the meeting. "You asked him if he'd take half, and he said no. So I don't know if there's negotiating or not."
Mulieri did, in fact, get her offer shot down — not by White, but by her fellow commissioners.
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It was the last public hearing in October on the county's overall spending plan, which included $85.5 million for the sheriff. He wanted another $4 million, mainly to cover the cost of 28 new deputies, but commissioners had held the line to keep his budget flat.
Mulieri suggested they could put off the planned $13 million complex for the county IT department and the Pasco Supervisor of Elections' data center.
"We could take out $2 million of that and fund 14 deputies for this year and put $2 million in the account for next year. …" she said.
Then-Commissioner Michael Cox jumped in.
"Madam chair, as I stated the last time we talked about this, we can always amend the budget down the road," Cox said. "But right now we have no facts, no information given to us as to the funding sources. … There's a whole lot of issues and I just don't feel comfortable making a knee-jerk decision. It's just not prudent."
Commissioner Ted Schrader: "I would agree."
Commissioner Ann Hildebrand: "Let's move to the next order of business for now."
White: "Thank you very much for your time."
A month later, White filed an appeal of his budget to the governor and Florida Cabinet. If no settlement is reached, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet will take up the issue on March 9.
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Gallagher said in an interview last week that his recollection had been that White rejected the offer at the last public hearing. (He noted that no commissioner, including Mulieri, corrected him Tuesday.)
"She said to him, she said from my recollection, 'Will you take half?' And he said no, he wanted it all," said Gallagher.
He dismissed a question about whether he was trying to indicate for the public record that the county had reached out to White and gotten rejected.
"I'm not trying to indicate anything," he said, "I'm just repeating the facts."
Commissioners said they had memories of reaching out to White, too.
Schrader said he recalled that it came during a budget workshop over the summer.
"(Mulieri) offered to at least begin some discussions, from my perspective," Schrader said. "I know she extended some opportunity. They didn't move on it, they didn't take that opportunity."
A review of the recording of that workshop shows both sides held their ground: commissioners saying they had no choice but to keep the sheriff's funding flat, and White saying he needed at least the 28 new deputies to keep the county safe.
In an interview last week, Commissioner Hildebrand said White told her that Mulieri had offered to pay for 10 new deputies.
"That was what the sheriff said," she said. "I know she basically offered some compromise."
Mulieri herself said she recalled offering the 14 deputies at the public hearing but didn't remember the sheriff doing the rejecting. She said in the beginning she privately offered the sheriff a compromise.
"Do you think I had two votes for it?" she said.
Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the videos and recordings of the meetings spoke for themselves.
"No offer was ever provided to the sheriff," he said. "That's why he went to the hearings, to get an offer."
Not that White seemed to be in a particularly compromising mood, either. During the first of two final public budget hearings, he did ask if there was enough money to fund just one new deputy but did not follow up on the point. And at the August budget workshop with commissioners, he said he'd made a mistake in past years by trying to negotiate his budget.
"I've learned not to sit down with you and the county administrator and try to talk about these things and work through these things," he said then. "Ted Schrader would remember the day Mr. Gallagher and I met over in Dade City, where I had a $6 million request and Mr. Schrader insisted it'd be a $3 million request. And we worked through that and at the end, it was cut $3 million. … In trying to work with the county, by trying to work with you on that one-on-one level, it ends up costing the Sheriff's Office."
Mulieri said in an interview that a settlement before the governor and Cabinet meet could be a good thing. But who blinks first?
"I guess it's been floating around," she said, of her previous offer. "I guess if he's interested, he'd call."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.