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Making Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis fight for his budget will be good for him

We didn't ask for Al Nienhuis to be our sheriff, but now that he's here, most of us want him to stick around.

So help him out, County Commission. Let the new guy show his troops he's a tough guy, which — judging from what I've read about his former department in Pasco County — will let him keep his job until he's an old guy.

Here's how you do it: Put up a fight on his budget. Don't act as if he's doing us some big favor when he says, as he's expected to, that he'll trim spending by 5 percent next year. When you meet on Tuesday for your budget hearing, tell him his office is bloated, which it is by today's lean standards. Show him that its funding has barely been trimmed in recent years while spending in other county operations has been slashed.

You could probably argue that he could cut deputies — Hernando's got more of them, per 1,000 residents, than either Citrus or Pasco — but you don't have to.

The last budget proposal Nienhuis released included 195.8 non-sworn positions, including 15 for clerks whose main job is writing deputies' reports for them. And dealing with the Sheriff's Office can feel like stepping back in time a few years, when every county worker seemed to be driving a $50,000 pickup truck.

The office's Emergency Operations Center (which, in fairness, was built in those old days) has as many flat-screen TVs as a sports bar. And, as we at the Times learned during a recent tour of the center, it not only has a backup generator, but is hoping to acquire, with grant money, a backup to the backup.

On a similar tour of the jail, we were told that half of the $3 million in repair funds will go to replace the somewhat cramped medical center with a free-standing facility, which Nienhuis said is needed to prevent possible inmate lawsuits.

"We don't want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish," he said.

That's admirably farsighted, but so is keeping ball fields open, which the county might not be able to do because it will spend a fraction of the amount on maintaining parks as the Sheriff's Office will on that new jail medical center.

You commissioners haven't pointed out this skewed priority — haven't made a big issue of the long-term costs of under-occupied, sedentary kids. Why not? Because not only do sheriffs tend to be politically popular, but sometimes we can forget they're political at all, especially when they're as smart and (I think) genuinely concerned about public safety as Nienhuis.

But they are political, of course, and if you want a reminder, there was a great story last month about nasty infighting in the Pasco Sheriff's Office by Times staff writer Lee Logan.

It included this memorable quote from former Pasco Sheriff Bob White, who told lawyers in a now-settled age-discrimination lawsuit: "I think it's arguable that probably everything, everyone I know and everyone that I see every day is through politics."

It described how White got rid of several high-ranking deputies who supported his opponent in the 2008 election. In fact, Nienhuis got rid of most of them on White's behalf, meaning he had an inside view of the perils of losing the support of his department. That was one of the complaints against White: he didn't fight hard enough for his workers.

These employees, sworn and non-sworn, are a sheriff's political base, as I've written before and am writing again because time is short, commissioners. You have less than a month to approve a budget.

Going for as much money as possible, saving jobs, is what Nienhuis needs to do to keep this base happy. Budget season is his first real test.

You commissioners don't have to make law enforcement funding the blood sport that we hear it is in Pasco

Just tell Nienhuis to cut a little more. Challenge him. He'll have a chance to prove he's a fighter.

And you'll be doing the right thing.

Making Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis fight for his budget will be good for him 09/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 8, 2011 8:10pm]
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