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Pinellas sheriff says it's time to think about a tax increase

After falling $10 million short of what the county asked him to cut from his department, Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats has reached a conclusion.

It's time to raise the property tax rate.

"I can live with what we've cut," said Coats, a two-term Republican. "But from here on out, we can't stand to make these kinds of cuts."

The Sheriff's Office has offered to cut $20.1 million in spending for 2011, but can't find any more ways to save, Coats said Thursday at a Suncoast Tiger Bay political club meeting in St. Petersburg.

The moves eliminate 178 jobs, though Coats said he will lay off no one. However, various services will be reduced, such as victim advocates and environmental patrols.

Already, he has closed a jail annex, sending inmates to sleep on mats elsewhere in the complex. He also eliminated a five-member crime prevention unit that helped neighborhoods with efforts such as crime watch programs.

"We're hoping the county will let us go with that reduction," Coats said.

Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel said it is likely the board — divided 4-3 when it set the reduction targets — won't try to impose more cuts on the sheriff. However, his tax hike proposal stands little chance of gaining traction.

The only support Coats may have is from Commissioner Ken Welch, whose previous calls for a millage increase has fallen on deaf ears.

"I haven't heard anybody but Commissioner Welch talk about any thoughts or ideas about increasing the (tax rate) millage," said County Administrator Bob LaSala, who attended the Tiger Bay luncheon. "Based on the absence of suggestion, either informally or formally, I have to assume there's no interest."

LaSala said the county's budget gurus are reviewing the sheriff's proposed budget, particularly the most expensive spending. Any further cuts would be a board decision.

LaSala and the commission decided this spring to ask Coats to cut $30 million to help balance a $40 million shortfall in 2011 and prepare for another round of cuts in 2012. The county had hoped to cut $60 million overall from next year's budget, leaving only $20 million in cuts needed the following year.

Amid that backdrop, Coats started hosting community meetings around the county to explain what his department does and how the cuts will hurt services.

He plans to hold six such meetings by the end of the month.

Coats will appear before the commission on June 8 to explain his proposed budget. While he hasn't used the same harsh rhetoric from two years ago, he has launched a campaign to explain why he should be spared deeper cuts.

At $20.1 million, the sheriff's office has met its share of balancing the 2011 budget. Trying to cut deeper to put money aside for 2012 isn't feasible when it comes to law enforcement, he said.

To avoid layoffs this year, Coats said the agency paid buyouts to more than 60 members who had signed up to retire within a few years. The agency could not provide a breakdown of the costs and savings associated with the departures on Thursday.

Union officials declined comment Thursday, but previously expressed worry mostly over the threat of layoffs.

At $220.1 million, the budget would be the lowest for the Sheriff's Office since the $204 million budget from 2004.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas sheriff says it's time to think about a tax increase 05/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 8:46am]
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