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Pinellas sheriff predicts 'carnage' in streets if budget is cut

If Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats has to cut his budget by 10 percent, he says, taxpayers should expect "a significant crime increase" and streets "littered with human carnage."

"Innocent citizens, including children, will be caught up in a deadly crossfire," Coats says. "… Law-abiding citizens will become prisoners in their own home."

Such predictions don't make for good campaign slogans, but Coats, who is seeking re-election this fall, said Florida's voter-approved Amendment 1 budget cuts put him in a terrible position.

Gone or reduced, he said, would be units to track sexual offenders, arrest drunken drivers and carry out community-oriented policing.

The Sheriff's Office proposed budget for 2008-09 is $261-million — by far the largest of any of Pinellas County's elected constitutional officers. Still, that's roughly $25-million less than this year's.

The biggest cuts would come from eliminating 161 positions at a savings of $11-million. Only 32 of those positions are currently vacant. That will be accompanied by a wage freeze for his roughly 3,000 employees.

Reductions in capital outlay and requests for new equipment cut another $4-million from the budget.

Then there are the popular programs Coats says would have to go as well. He spent most of a two-hour presentation to the County Commission Thursday talking about:

• Eliminating the community policing program, where deputies spend time working with community leaders.

• Eliminating the driving-under-the-influence enforcement unit.

• Eliminating the traffic enforcement unit, which handed out 7,389 citations last year.

• Cutting in half the sexual predator and offender tracking group, which consists of 10 deputies who keep track of 1,300 sex offenders.

Currently, the Sheriff's Office tracks sex offenders throughout the whole county. The cuts, Coats said, would cause his people to track only those offenders in his main service area. Cities would have to track their sex offenders on their own or pay the Sheriff's Office to do it.

The budget discussion generated friction between him and the County Commission. What, commissioners asked, would happen in communities that rely on community-oriented policing?

"We're going to provide basic, core law enforcement services and respond to calls for service as we can," Coats said. "If you eliminate our resources, what do you expect us to do?"

"I can't let you pass on that last comment," commission Chairman Bob Stewart told the sheriff. "It's not us vs. you. I mean, we're in this thing together."

A final decision on the budget cuts is months away. The next budget year begins Oct. 1.

Coats said later that if the cuts went through, he wouldn't be the one to blame for the consequences; it would be the county commissioners.

"If they don't give me the resources," he said, "I think the citizens should be pointing fingers at them."

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or
(727) 445-4157.

>>Fast facts

Proposed budget cuts

2008-09 proposed budget: $260.6-million.

Reduction from
2007-08: $24.6-million.

Cut: 161 positions.

Eliminate: DUI enforcement unit, traffic enforcement unit, community policing and three jail programs that teach life and job skills to inmates.

Reduce: Sexual offender tracking.

Freeze: Wages for about 3,000 employees.

Pinellas sheriff predicts 'carnage' in streets if budget is cut 05/23/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 8:42am]
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