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Sheriff Bob White's plan to appeal budget could backfire

Government workshops are a great place to talk, but not to listen.

Tuesday morning, the Pasco Commission and Sheriff Bob White are scheduled to meet in a budget workshop. No motions. No votes. Just an open discussion about finances and public safety.

Expect nothing to be accomplished. Sure, there will be lots of talking, but I suspect everyone might as well wear ear plugs.

Case in point: In May, the commission and sheriff met and the commission rushed ahead with a planned taxing district for law enforcement — over White's objections — while simultaneously asking constitutional officers to cut their spending by 5 percent.

White, the only constitutional officer in the room, later said the commission wasn't addressing him. He, instead, asked for a 4.6 percent increase over his current $85.5 million budget. A tin ear or obstinate?

Likewise, commissioners later retreated from the special taxing district idea when they belatedly discovered it meant a property tax increase for roughly 89 percent of the county. Snoozing or ignorance?

If the participants hold true to form Tuesday, the sheriff will pitch a budget plan calling for a nearly $4 million increase for his department. The commissioners will tell him there's no extra cash to spare.

These non-productive sessions became customary after the state mandated spending caps on local governments in 2007. A year later came new tax exemptions courtesy of Amendment 1 and the coincidental start of a three-year free fall of property tax values.

The sheriff can argue — courtesy of the county's own surveys — that people want public safety. The commission can rightfully counter that the same public wants libraries, parks, veterans services and other functions now being cut to close a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.

Commissioners also politely refrain from publicly pointing out to the sheriff that he supported Amendment 1, which reduced the government revenue available to fund his department.

Now comes the sheriff's stated intention, according to Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, to appeal the commission's budget decision to the governor and Cabinet if he fails to receive his desired amount.

On this point, it would behoove the sheriff to listen closely to his political predecessors. No Pasco sheriff has won re-election after challenging the commission's budget decision to Tallahassee.

John Short's budget appeal 30 years ago ended up saddling his department for years with a whole new accounting system recommended by the Cabinet. Since the county complained Short was leaving positions vacant to spend those salaries elsewhere, the Cabinet said the county should hold in escrow a portion of annual payroll costs under the assumption that turnover prevented the department from being 100 percent staffed for 365 days a year. Short's successors Jim Gillum and Lee Cannon both grumbled about the requirement.

Gillum appealed his budget allocation in 1989. The staff lawyer who handled the appeal? Cannon. He became sheriff in 1992 and volunteered later that such a gambit wasn't worth the lost political capital. (Yes, Short and Gillum carried other political baggage to their electoral losses, but the budget disputes put an exclamation point on their arrogance.)

White also shouldn't count on his friendship with Gov. Charlie Crist to expedite a favorable ruling. Gillum's appeal wasn't settled until the following April, nearly seven months into the fiscal year. Crist leaves the governor's office in January 2011.

Gillum originally demanded $3.1 million, nearly 14 percent above his commission-approved budget, then halved his request to $1.6 million when the proceedings reached the six-month mark. The Cabinet eventually voted to follow its staff's recommendation — give Gillum just $203,000 extra.

It was a time-consuming and expensive process. The commission even voted to spend $10,000 on a lobbyist. It left an indelible mark. Elected public officials were spending the public's money to fight over the public's money.

This year, White wants a bigger budget to hire 28 new deputies to patrol Holiday and Regency Park/Embassy Hills. The commission, meanwhile, is pondering a budget that will shutter the Centennial Park Branch Library in Holiday because of the overhead.

So, here's something to which they should all listen. Go to that library in Holiday and ask this question: Would you rather have this branch kept open or more deputies on patrol?

Sheriff Bob White's plan to appeal budget could backfire 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 11:27am]

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