PORT RICHEY — Heather Turano's eyes swept the park as she played with her daughter. She noted the dozen teens clustered under the pavilion. A man walking his dog. She's a 27-year-old single mother who lives on Fox Hollow Drive in Regency Park, not far from Lake Lisa Park, where her 3-year-old climbed on the jungle gym Friday afternoon.
Turano keeps to herself and is fearful of crime. Her neighbor's car has been broken into. Her own tires were slashed. She hears of area robberies, theft, vandalism, domestic violence. She's taught her toddler what to do if a stranger approaches:
"What do you say?" Turano said.
"You're not safe," said Gianna, who turns 4 this month.
"What do you do if someone tries to grab you?"
"Run," Gianna said.
When Turano heard that Pasco Sheriff Bob White wants to hire 28 new deputies to patrol her area and Holiday, she said "that would be a great idea."
White unveiled his plan Tuesday when he submitted his proposed budget for next year. County commissioners told White to cut his spending by 5 percent. Instead, the sheriff asked for an additional $3.9 million — a 4.6 percent increase. A good chunk of that would be earmarked for more deputies.
White proposes splitting those officers between two target areas that account for one out of every four calls for service:
• Embassy area: A roughly 8-square-mile area boxed in by State Road 52, Little Road, Ridge Road and U.S. 19. It includes Embassy Hills, Regency Park, Gulf Highlands, Timber Oaks, East Brown Acres, Jasmine Lakes and Palm Terrace Gardens.
• Holiday area: A roughly 20-square-mile area that runs from State Road 54 to the Pinellas County line, and from Little Road all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It includes Beacon Square, Holiday Lakes Estates, Aloha Gardens and other Holiday communities, plus Seven Springs and parts of Trinity.
White said he chose those areas because "they are the most blighted right now." Many of those neighborhoods were built decades ago for retirees and were once the "gem" of west Pasco, he said. But as those owners passed away, some of the homes became rentals and fell into disrepair. Crime seeped in.
"There are real signs of criminal footholds in the west side of the county," White said.
As the population grew, so did the calls to the Sheriff's Office. But the Embassy and Holiday areas fared no worse than the rest of the county, according to an analysis of the sheriff's figures.
In 2000, those two areas were responsible for 26.03 percent of the calls to the Sheriff's Office. Last year, they accounted for 24.60 percent of the calls countywide.
According to the sheriff's projections for calls, that downward trend is expected to continue through 2012.
As the sheriff and the commissioners haggle over his proposed spending plan this summer, two other numbers could make the extra deputies a tough sell in a tight budget year.
The first figure is 24 — the number of new deputies White hired last year, after procuring a federal grant that covered the first three years' salaries.
The second number is 7.8 percent — the drop in Pasco's crime rate over the previous year. When that stat came out in February, White touted his agency's high clearance rate, or the number of cases closed by arrest. And, he added, "We have one of the lowest violent crime rates in the state."
White acknowledged the decreased crime rate and lauded his deputies for their hard work. He said these 28 new deputies are needed to "keep pace" with what he says is a growing criminal element in these two zones.
"This is maintenance," he said. "This is simply maintenance."
Capt. Mike Schreck said the new deputies are vital to keep the criminal element in check.
"This is not a surge," he said. "We just don't want to lose any ground."
Schreck is in charge of district one, which includes the Embassy area. He said deputies are working on a "skeleton crew," though he declined to say how many patrol the area.
The Sheriff's Office has 240 road patrol deputies employed countywide, said sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin. They work 12-hour schedules, and at any given time about 20 percent are off the road for various reasons: vacation, training, in court, out sick.
Schreck said the deputies are so busy running from one call to the next, they have less time for proactive measures, such as talking to residents about suspicious activity or keeping an eye on public parks.
"You can only do more with less for so long and then there is a breaking point," said Capt. Jack Armstrong, who is in charge of district three, which includes Holiday.
Both captains said there is not one single alarming crime trend in their areas — just a mix of everything, from murders to vandalism.
Residents in the Holiday communities of Tahitian Gardens, Aloha Gardens and Tahitian Homes have organized volunteer patrols, day and night, to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Jim Turtle, 73, president of the TAT Civic Association, said people there have dealt with only a few minor crimes, such as vandalism and car burglaries.
"You've got to be more and more vigilant to keep these people at bay," Turtle said.
He said he supports the sheriff's quest for more deputies — and also urges others to get involved in protecting their own areas.
At the other end of what the Sheriff's Office calls the "Holiday area" are some upscale neighborhoods in Trinity. Paulette Zbikowski, 68, has been a Trinity Oaks resident for nearly 17 years and is former board member of their community association. She said their neighborhood doesn't have much crime — maybe some vandalized mailboxes, black marks on driveways from skidding bicycles, or a burglarized car from time to time. She was surprised the Sheriff's Office included her neighborhood in its attack on crime.
But she doesn't mind.
"It is a good idea," she said. "Today, you can't be too safe."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.