NEW PORT RICHEY — Under fire from a political opponent for his agency's take-home car policy, Sheriff Bob White plans to park 50 vehicles driven by civilian and jail employees of the Sheriff's Office.
But he says the decision has nothing to do with politics.
"What we're trying to do is soften the blow of the big cut in existing funding that's coming next year," White said Wednesday.
With two recent changes in Florida to property tax collections, Pasco County could face a $15-million loss in revenue next budget year. The Sheriff's Office, with an $86-million budget, undoubtedly will feel some of that squeeze.
Col. Al Nienhuis, White's second-in-command, estimated the savings of the vehicle use change at about $50,000 a year.
The cars will be pulled from the road effective June 1, and either be put into pool use or sold at auction. They include cars assigned on a take-home basis to people like the director of forfeiture, head of human resources, chief administrative officer and numerous jail staff members — nonemergency responders all.
Records provided by the Sheriff's Office suggest several such cars were used for little more than the employees' daily commute.
Take, for instance, the agency's director of information technology, who put 12,773 miles on his Chevy Impala in 2007. His drive to work in Land O'Lakes from his home in New Port Richey accounts for 11,850 of those miles, records show.
He also used 552 gallons of gas last year, at a cost to taxpayers of $1,468.
Republican candidate Robert Sullivan, who calls the cars a job perk the agency can ill-afford, applauded the change but said White wouldn't have pulled the cars if not for his campaign raising the issue.
"Why didn't he do this six months ago? Why didn't he do it nine months ago?" Sullivan said. "It is just way too ironic that within a month of us pointing this out, that he's now chosen to fix it when he should have made the cuts that he needed to cut almost a year ago."
But White said Sullivan's outcry over the cars wasn't the first time someone began scrutinizing the policy.
"We worked through this early on," White said, referring to budget meetings last year. "And honestly, they knew about this. Alan Weinstein knew about it, Sully (Sullivan) knew about it."
Weinstein retired in October as a sheriff's captain and is now working for Sullivan's campaign. Sullivan, a former lieutenant, retired in November.
Sullivan agreed with White's account — partly.
"I knew before I left that he was contemplating eliminating personal use (of patrol cars) from the cops," Sullivan said. "I never — nothing was ever said about the civilian cars."
The policy change also ends all off-duty use of Sheriff's Office cars, even by sworn deputies. Previously, all employees with take-home cars could drive them during off hours for personal business, within the borders of Pasco County.
Sullivan disagrees with that change. He said deputies should have use of their cars off-duty so they can respond immediately — and from anywhere — to an emergency.
"He's possibly throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Sullivan said.
Driving out of county
White, who said little about the car issue when Sullivan took it to the media in February, fired a shot of his own Wednesday.
"There's a little irony in this whole thing," the sheriff said. "I stopped Bobby Sullivan from driving his unmarked, really nice police car to his home in Brooksville, which he had done for years. He really lamented over it and cried the blues.
"It's funny now that he's banging that gong that he lobbied so hard for back in 2001, because it was quite a departure when I made those guys bring the cars back in the county."
Sullivan's response: "Yes, that's true."
Sullivan, who was head of the vice unit, said he objected ardently to White's move disallowing agency cars to be driven out of county — not for his own benefit, he said, but for homicide detectives, SWAT team members and others who have to respond quickly to crime scenes.
"I said, 'Sheriff, I don't care. I'll park my car because I don't have to respond to meth labs and surveillance, but my guys do. Please reconsider,' " Sullivan said. "He would not hear of it."
White said Wednesday this latest decision was difficult because of its impact on his employees.
"We're in effect taking money out of their pockets," he said.
But economic conditions dictate it.
"What's happening now is the climate has changed once again," White said, "and now these things that were a matter of course and the norm now have become things we can't afford."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.