NEW PORT RICHEY — Sheriff Bob White submitted a hope-for-the-best budget Friday that freezes salaries, includes no layoffs, cuts no programs and reduces spending by more than $1-million from last year's levels.
County officials have warned White to be prepared to absorb a much deeper cut — $7-million in the worst case — as his agency's portion of an overall $17-million hit Pasco is bracing to take, due to slipping property values and recent tax reforms.
"If I have to take a $7-million hit next year, that's going to be hard," White told reporters Friday. "I'm just trying to soften the blow."
But drastic cuts are being seen everywhere else. Pasco budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said some county departments are looking at reductions of at least 5 percent.
A cut like that would be $4-million of White's $85-million budget. By contrast, Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats is eliminating 161 positions to save $11-million from his $261-million budget.
Commissioner Michael Cox wondered if White is being too optimistic. The sheriff's budget consumes more than half of Pasco's property tax revenue in the general fund.
"It's not realistic given the fact of the current economic climate that we're in," Cox said.
White's proposed budget also omits some $4-million that will be needed to staff an addition to the county jail. The three-story annex broke ground last month and is expected to be completed next summer.
White wrote in a memo to the County Commission that he will probably need to start hiring new jail staff in three months in order to have them trained by opening day.
"This will almost certainly require an amendment to this budget submission," White wrote.
He said in the news conference he hopes to hire staff and move in inmates to just the first floor, then add more people later if money is available.
Nurrenbrock said there is money in reserve for staffing, probably enough to put guards on the first floor.
White said he has trimmed $1.5-million from the current year's budget in hopes the money will be returned to the Sheriff's Office next year.
County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader, who publicly tangled with White over his budget requests last year, called that a reasonable request.
He said White's proposed budget, at first glance, is "a move in the right direction." Ultimately the County Commission decides how much money to give the Sheriff's Office for the next budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
One bright spot in the budget is a $50,000 allocation for gap insurance to cover medical care for employees who retire after 30 years of service but are not yet eligible for Medicare.
Gap insurance has been a contentious issue between White and the deputies' union. Since the union formed in 2006, the two sides have yet to sign a labor contract.
John Connolly, a detective and president of the deputies union, said the inclusion of gap insurance is "absolutely a step in the right direction."
"We're happy about that," he said. "We don't know what took so long."
White said he added the insurance this year because, once the county's firefighters union secured the benefit, the time was ripe for deputies.
"I've been for it all along," he said. "But I have to have a line item in the budget. I don't usually put things in my budget that I don't think I'm going to get.
"This year, I know the county is good to go."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.