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For the first time in four years, Pinellas County sheriff hits target for cuts

CLEARWATER — For the first time in four years, Sheriff Jim Coats came up with spending cuts that met the Pinellas County Commission's demands.

But $14.1 million in cuts — which are $200,000 deeper than the county's target — came with warnings about deeper reductions and unforeseen drains on taxpayers.

From the Legislature to the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, outside events could leave the agency little room, Coats warned in a letter this week to commissioners. He stressed that "no further reductions are operationally acceptable."

Under the proposed budget, the sheriff will eliminate 27 deputy positions, 39 detention officers and nine civilian positions. No one will be laid off because has been attrition, already vacant jobs and shifts in staffing, such as more part-time workers and private contractors.

The reductions mean fewer deputies will get training. Clerk uniforms will be gone. The front desk at the sheriff's main office and north district station will be closed on the overnight shift.

The cuts will solve much of the county's $21.5 million deficit for 2012. The remaining reductions will come from other officeholders and departments under County Administrator Bob LaSala.

The full proposed budget is due in July.

Coats was asked to cut $13.9 million to make up for failing to meet budget reduction targets last year.

While he made $20 million in cuts last year, he still came up $9.6 million short — the core of this year's reductions. He was able to meet the full target because the agency started reducing spending last year, prompted by early signs from commissioners that they would be holding tight to the target after buckling previous years.

"I just think it's been a difficult four years for everyone," said Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala. "This year we pulled the constitutionals in much earlier so they could understand our challenges, and we could understand their challenges."

With three previous years of reductions, the Sheriff's Office has 616 fewer jobs.

"There's no more room for cuts in patrol or the jail as far as deputies," said Chief Deputy Robert Gualtieri, who oversees the agency budget.

This summer, instead of debating whether Coats cut enough, the question for the county has become whether it's too much — and what impact it has on the community, County Commissioner Ken Welch said.

"You don't cut $14 million on top of his previous years' cut without having some impact," Welch said. "There is an impact in the personal lives of those employees and the public overall."

The commission may not be done wrestling with law enforcement spending, even if Coats' proposal sticks.

A bill in the Legislature could reduce the amount of people who can have pretrial release from jail, costing the sheriff's office $5 million to staff and operate more jail space.

Meanwhile, plans are under way for events in Pinellas related to the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. Early discussions involve significant events at the beaches and Tropicana Field, Gualtieri said.

Unlike Hillsborough agencies, he said, Pinellas will not qualify for federal reimbursement of law enforcement costs. It's too soon to estimate how much that will cost, he said, but noted the hundreds of reported arrests at the last national GOP convention.

"It was a huge drain on law enforcement."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.

For the first time in four years, Pinellas County sheriff hits target for cuts 04/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 29, 2011 11:11pm]
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