The Pasco County Commission has taken a shortsighted approach to the budget funding shortfall faced by our county. I believe that initiating a new tax on Pasco citizens is unconscionable in these economically hard times.
Commissioners claim that the tax burden on citizens will even out, or that the taxes collected by the municipal services taxing unit, or MSTU, will be subtracted from the ad valorem or property tax base. However, I believe that the temptation to later raise the ad valorem tax when faced with a budgeting shortfall will be too great for commissioners to resist. We don't know how long the economic downturn will continue, which has resulted in the reduced funding to county coffers. Thus, I foresee the overall tax burden on Pasco citizens will begin to rise when commissioners are faced with even more reduction in services or layoffs of county personnel.
If this idea for a law enforcement specific tax is so great, why has the commission failed to adequately fund firefighting services in Pasco that are supported with a similar tax? According to media reports, more than a dozen firefighters were cut from the current budget year due to this lack of funding from the tax. This ongoing lack of support is why firefighters approached me last year to inquire about the possibility of me taking control of firefighting services. They know how I fight for my deputies.
Even more surprising, without any notice, citizen input, and not a shred of documentation or study, commissioners are unanimous in their support of a new $55 million tax! Commissioners have never met a consultant they didn't like, but for this issue, they have suddenly gained the expertise to decide that this was the best option available? That is truly baffling.
An issue of transparency was also raised during the meeting that passed the MSTU. Eighty-seven percent of the Sheriff's Office budget pays for the salaries of law enforcement and detention deputies who are on the front line of providing public safety, or other personnel who directly support these deputies. This includes crime analysts, computer technicians, mechanics and human resource personnel. You can't get much more transparent than that. The vast majority of my budget increases over the years has been to both hire more deputies and adequately pay the ones we currently employ. It's that simple.
Something that has not been stated clearly is that commissioners will still control the millage of an MSTU, not the sheriff. So their decision to move the burden to the sheriff to justify his budget or make it transparent is a moot point. It will not be the sheriff who sets the rate but commissioners, so we are right back to where we started: How the Sheriff's Office is funded is still controlled by the board, whether by general revenue funds or an MSTU.
Splitting the property tax rate between incorporated and unincorporated Pasco County is an exercise based in fantasy. As the top law enforcement officer in the county, it is my duty to provide services for the municipalities as well as in the unincorporated areas. Practically all sheriffs do this for their cities across the state. Just because commissioners can arbitrarily decide that these services are no longer needed does not mean the need will go away. It is my duty to protect all Pasco citizens.
MSTUs are designed to create an equitable distribution of taxes so that the people who receive certain services are the ones who pay for them. Other counties that have MTSUs for law enforcement have undergone careful reviews, including in some cases hiring a consultant, to make sure that the taxes are distributed in an equitable manner. The suggestion made at the meeting was that the county budget manager would just go through the sheriff's programs and decide which go under the MSTU and which go under the general fund. All sheriff's programs benefit all citizens of the county and it would take time and input from many people to make a proper determination of how the burden should be split.
Over the years, I have made difficult budget choices. Last year I returned more than $1.2 million in Penny for Pasco funds and since 2007, I have returned $4.75 million in unspent budget money and other revenue through cost-cutting measures and fiscal thriftiness. On top of that, I have reduced our law enforcement budget by more than $1.2 million. Furthermore, I pursued and was awarded federal funds to hire 24 additional road patrol deputies, something that the county initially did not want me to do.
County commissioners need to be open with this decision to create an MSTU. For that reason, I am asking the Board of County Commissioners for two things before the creation of a new tax on Pasco citizens: Undertake a thorough study to first determine if there is a need for an MSTU and, if so, what is the best way to implement one; and then present to citizens the findings of the study for their review and input on whether or not they support separating the funding of law enforcement services from the general tax fund.
I am proud of my office's record of fiscal responsibility and have no problem explaining to citizens how their tax dollars are spent. I will put our budget up against any law enforcement agency in the state. It's unfortunate that county leaders still fail to recognize the success of the Pasco Sheriff's Office in providing the high professional level of law enforcement services at the lowest possible cost to the citizens of our county.