Early last month, Pasco Sheriff Bob White resisted commissioners' demand to cut spending next year. He said he needed more money to hire 28 new deputies for fighting crime in Holiday and Embassy Hills.
But just weeks after he released his proposed budget, White found enough money in his current budget to fill two new positions — not for fighting crime, but for balancing the books.
White created two accounting positions in the financial department: one to manage $29 million worth of assets and another to oversee the inmate welfare fund, which accumulates more than $1 million each year in fees from inmates at the Land O'Lakes jail.
Those functions were previously handled piecemeal by a variety of staffers, said sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll. He said the two new jobs do not represent an increase in positions at the Sheriff's Office but rather were reclassified from the vacant "call-in reporting" positions that took deputies' information over the phone and typed up the reports.
The two new positions, which pay $35,672 apiece, were advertised in April and filled in June. One will be paid for with general fund money; the other will be funded by inmate fees.
With White pushing to beef up what he says is a no-fat budget, is now the best time to be creating new civilian support positions?
"The Sheriff's Office is a dynamic organization, and these moves are to ensure that the money being spent is properly maintained and accounted for," Doll said. "I think citizens would be more concerned if we weren't properly accounting for the money we've been given. We have been doing that. This just puts a tighter control on it."
Nearly 260 people applied for the two new accountant positions, plus a vacancy in an existing accountant position, according to Doll.
The new accountant who will oversee the sheriff's assets? Phillip O'Neil, the 28-year-old son of Clerk of Courts Paula O'Neil.
A U.S. Air Force veteran, he holds a master's degree in finance from Indiana University. He last worked as a data entry and customer service manager for Gulf Management Systems in Clearwater until he was laid off in January 2009 due to the recession, according to his application.
The hire for the other new accountant position was Brenda Heiss, 59, who previously worked for Ron Brace Accounting Services in Tampa. Officials filled the third, vacant accountant position — which was advertised in December — with an internal candidate, former fiscal clerk Cathy Lugo.
White and Paula O'Neil say she played no role in her son's hire, and both gave similar accounts of how Phillip put his name in the hat:
Phillip O'Neil saw White at Bonefish Grill one evening earlier this year and went up to introduce himself. White asked him where he was working. O'Neil said he was out of work and looking for jobs.
White suggested he send in his resume and fill out an application, which O'Neil did in February.
"He's well-qualified for the position," said Doll, noting O'Neil's advanced degree.
This isn't the only personnel connection between the two offices. Back in May 2009, Paula O'Neil hired Holly Hawkes, the wife of White's general counsel, Jeremiah Hawkes.
Jeremiah Hawkes, former general counsel to the state House of Representatives, was one of several well-connected Republicans hired by the sheriff last year. The others included contract attorney Richard Corcoran, a former chief of staff to Marco Rubio and a longtime friend of state Sen. Mike Fasano, now running for a state House seat; Timothy Couet, a former campaign manager for Fasano; and Chris Nocco, a former chief of staff at the Florida Highway Patrol and a Rubio aide.
Holly Hawkes, 26, is a strategic planner for O'Neil and makes $45,000 a year. She holds a master's degree in public administration from the University of Georgia and previously worked as a researcher in the state Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
Paula O'Neil said she had struck up a conversation with Hawkes at a Spirit of '76 Republican Club meeting and encouraged her to apply for the open position.
O'Neil, noting the one-year difference in the two hires, said it was unfair to draw a connection between her hiring Holly Hawkes and the sheriff hiring Phillip O'Neil.
"It wasn't that we made a deal or something like that," she said. "Two qualified people with master's degrees, more than a year apart. Holly's a great employee, and I'm sure my son will be a great employee."
Doll, meanwhile, pitched the new hires in the financial department as a money-saving effort in the long run. With the new jobs, the financial department now has 11 employees.
"This is one way to watch every penny," he said. "(White) wants to make sure the assets we do have are properly accounted for, for financial purposes, for insurance purposes. It wasn't being done under one central position."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.