Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis is right about one thing.
"The County Commission faces a very tough decision" about its 2012-13 budget.
This decision may come as early as Tuesday, at a special commission meeting called to talk about ways for the county to get out of its financial jam, one of which may be adopting the "rollback rate."
This is not a tax increase, just enough of a bump in the tax rate to counter the tax break most of us will get from declining property values.
I'm repeating that because voters need to know the truth about taxes. They need to know how little is being asked of them and how desperately short of funds the county is. They need to know — as three constitutional offices said last Tuesday — that if the commission doesn't act, services will simply start disappearing.
County government has been withering for years; now is when it starts dying. And the grim vital signs aren't coming just from the constitutional officers. A memo from the county attorney's office last week warned of declining revenue, shuttered departments, huge looming bills from the state and, potentially, insolvency.
One constitutional officer who didn't speak up, unfortunately, was the one who has the most responsibility to do so, the one whose voice would have carried the most weight: Nienhuis.
"I think I have enough that I'm responsible for when it comes to law enforcement," he told me when I asked him about this on Friday. "I need to be relatively neutral."
True, unlike the constitutional officers who spoke out, the sheriff doesn't have any duties related to how county money is raised or spent. And though they are all leaving office, and free to speak their minds, Nienhuis is facing a couple of credible opponents.
So, it makes political sense for him to keep his mouth shut. Just as it makes sense for him to grab as big a share of the budget as he can for his department — a proposed 62 percent of the general fund operations budget.
In government, money means jobs, and jobs mean power, which is no doubt why Nienhuis is willing to adopt the unloved foster child of county government, Animal Services, or at least its enforcement duties.
Still, this leaves him looking like the dinner companion who drinks most of the wine, orders the biggest steak, then slips off to the restroom before the bill arrives. The least he could do is contribute a little bit of political cover for the commission. And I don't think the tab would be as big as he thinks. Judging from the speakers at Thursday night's town hall meeting on the budget, people are starting to realize how much parks, libraries, code enforcement and animal services mean to them and how little they cost.
Right now, the average homeowner is paying taxes on about $57,000 worth of property, or about $320 a year to the county's general fund. Two careless runs through Brooksville, and you're out almost that much in red-light fines.
The more that powerful, respected officials such as Nienhuis speak the truth about this issue — that raising the tax rate is the only responsible thing to do at this point — the less they would have to run from it.
"This is the time to take a stand and do what's right," one of the constitutional officers, Tax Collector Juanita Sikes, told the commission on Tuesday.
That goes for you, too, Sheriff, despite what you say.