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Unexpected revenue saves some cut Sheriff's Office programs

Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats predicted in May that a 10 percent cut in his budget would litter the streets with human carnage and leave citizens hostage in their own homes.

Turns out, though, that a 9 percent cut will work.

After weeks of budget ballyhooing, Coats and the county administration reached an agreement Wednesday that will restore some of the sheriff's most valuable programs.

Traffic and DUI enforcement units will come back in a consolidated form.

Community Policing deputies will return.

So will the weekend boot camp, the youth services deputies, the Sexual Predator and Offender Tracking program, and the life skills courses at the jail.

The agreement and the budget as a whole still need to be approved by the County Commission.

"When it's a done deal, I would be happy to say, 'Thank you very much,' " Coats said.

So where did the money come from?

Coats, a Republican running for re-election, said he found an unexpected $2.5-million in revenue from the U.S. Marshals Service, which pays to house inmates in the Pinellas jail. At least $800,000 more comes from an agreement with the county to let the Sheriff's Office keep money from this year's budget that wasn't spent.

The money means no more layoffs for the agency of 1,600 certified detention and patrol deputies and roughly 3,000 total employees.

But for the 61 certified deputies who were laid off, there is no reprieve. In all, about 265 positions — both certified and civilian — will disappear through layoffs, attrition and a hiring freeze. And the drastic reductions in capital outlay and equipment funds will remain in effect.

On the campaign trail, Coats' Democratic opponents, John Pikramenos and Randall M. Jones, have slammed him for scare tactics and sloppiness in presenting the budget.

"I still believe that a large part of this is a ruse," Jones said. "It was designed to scare the public so the public can put pressure on the County Commission to raise his budget."

"The scare tactics, the knee-jerk reactions are way too frequent," Pikramenos said. "He needs to look at things and do a little more research prior to taking action. He's affecting people's lives."

The candidates and their supporters have blasted Coats for carrying too large a surplus in the health benefit fund used to compensate sick and injured Sheriff's Office employees. Critics ask why some money can't be taken from the fund to help avoid program cuts and layoffs.

At the end of the 2007 fiscal year, there was about $10.3-million in the fund. About $4-million was needed to meet state Department of Revenue guidelines.

While money can't easily be pulled out of the fund, payments in could be reduced, in theory, freeing up cash for other purposes. Coats said he likes the extra buffer because a few catastrophic claims, such as heart or liver transplants, could quickly jeopardize the fund's health.

"We would be cutting it so close," Coats said.

Coats said Wednesday that he probably exaggerated the danger when he spoke of mayhem in the streets, but he was trying to make a point that without community policing deputies in some of the county's toughest neighborhoods, those areas would be overrun by crime.

"He's apologized several times to me for that," said Commissioner Susan Latvala, who has been involved in recent weeks with the sheriff's budget negotiations. "He feels the same way about his employees as we feel about ours. He got a little melodramatic. But I understand it. I don't like the lash-back that it caused, but it's emotional, very emotional."

Jonathan Abel can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

$261-million Proposed budget

$25.7-million Initial budget cut

Wednesday's agreement adds $2.5-million in funding from the U.S. Marshals Service and at least $800,000 rolled over from funds not spent this fiscal year.

Unexpected revenue saves some cut Sheriff's Office programs 07/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2008 6:05pm]
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