TALLAHASSEE — Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats came calling with a dire warning for lawmakers this week: His agency will stop investigating child abuse if the Legislature sticks to its budget-cutting plan.
Legislators want to cut nearly $3-million from a Department of Children and Families program that hires seven sheriff's offices, including those in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, to handle child abuse cases. It's an average 6 percent cut and small change in the $65-billion budget debate, but it illustrates how worrisome even the smaller reductions can be as lawmakers struggle with a drop in tax revenue.
Coats and DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth said the cut would devastate their ability to respond to cases of abuse. If Pinellas' sheriff withdraws from the work, possibly next year, the cases will revert to DCF investigators, who Butterworth says already are overtaxed.
When a call comes into the state's abuse hotline, an investigator must respond and close the case in 60 days by state law. With fewer investigators, caseloads will increase, adding pressure and raising the chance for a mistake about a child's safety, Butterworth said.
"The worst that could happen is you make a wrong decision and a child dies," he said.
But Sen. Durell Peaden, chairman of a Senate committee overseeing the spending, said he doubts that lawmakers will add back money. A $3.2-billion drop in state revenue means there's not enough money, and cuts are being made across the state's services for 2008-09.
"We can't print money like the feds," said Peaden, R-Crestview. "It doesn't matter what he (Butterworth) says, he's not an appropriator. I'm an appropriator."
It's not just Coats — who spent the week lobbying at the Capitol — and Butterworth with worries, though.
In Hillsborough, the Sheriff's Office has discussed cuts, too, said spokesman J.D. Callaway. Fewer funds would be difficult for its program of 100 investigators, he said.
"I think there's some talk about reducing the number of investigators, but that's all yet to be seen," Callaway said.
Pasco County is wary of losing money for a program that Sheriff Bob White prides as one of the most efficient in the state. That agency fears it will have to cut some of its 30 positions, although it's not considering backing out of the work, spokesman Doug Tobin said.
Sheriffs began taking over child abuse investigations in 1999 after lawmakers pushed to reduce embarrassing backlogs at DCF. Manatee County was the first. Butterworth noted few lawmakers serving now were in the Legislature at that time to remember the reasons.
Because sheriffs already do investigations, adding child abuse cases from civilian agency employees was supposed to be a natural fit. The sheriff's offices also have less turnover, helping make investigations more efficient, Butterworth said.
In the past three years of plusher budgets, however, state funding wasn't increased. Meanwhile, costs for fuel, salaries and building leases went up.
So did caseloads. This year, Pinellas received $10.7-million to handle 10,000 cases, which have risen about 4 percent annually, sheriff's officials said. As a result, Coats said he has left six of his 79 civilian investigator jobs unfilled.
"Sometimes, some of the legislators make some of these funding decisions without realizing the impact of what they're doing," Coats said.
DCF and local lawmakers asked for $12.4-million for Pinellas next year, which included four new investigators and three new clerks. House and Senate leaders instead offered $10-million for Pinellas, $700,000 less than it received this year.
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who wants to increase the money, warns it will be tough going since both chambers already have agreed on an amount.
If the reductions stand, Coats said his agency likely will give the responsibility back to the state by mid 2009. Due to increased costs, the spending cut could force Pinellas to eliminate up to a quarter of its investigator jobs, said Capt. George Steffen, who oversees the child protection division.
Butterworth said Coats probably has no choice. But if DCF has to pick up more investigations, the agency's budget from lawmakers would provide 71 fewer investigators to do it.
"You can't do more with less," Steffen said.
Times staff writer Abbie VanSickle contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.