In January 2009, Pasco Sheriff Bob White said he didn't expect additional officers to be coming to his department in the near future. "That's probably an accurate assumption,'' White told the Times then. "I think we all know the situation we're in right now. I wish we had more folks. The reality is we're all lucky to be here.''
But his luck didn't run out. Later that year, White's department accepted a three-year, $4.4 million federal stimulus grant to add 24 deputies and the County Commission began setting aside money in escrow to assume the full cost of those salaries and benefits in the fourth year.
That reasonable approach to law enforcement spending has disappeared however, and, on Friday, White told the governor and Cabinet that Pasco County has ignored public safety needs throughout his tenure in office.
"It is about a 10-year battle with my county commission over their (sic) failure to recognize, in good times and bad, that the first responsibility of government is safety of its citizens,'' White wrote in appealing his budget to Tallahassee. The Sheriff's Office is seeking nearly $4 million more than $85.4 million approved by the commission with the most-high profile outlay going to hire 28 road deputies to patrol west Pasco from Holiday to State Road 52.
Despite the hyperbole, the sheriff's own appeal documents undermine his decade-of-denial argument. During White's first five years in office, he asked for 44 certified law enforcement officers and received funding for 42. In budget year 2006-07, he asked for 47 and received 30. In his election-year budget of 2008-09, he asked for no new road deputies. Last year, he received the 24 grant-funded positions.
That doesn't strike us as ignoring public safety, nor is it fair of White to try to lay responsibility on the commission and its staff for what he perceives to be a lack of commitment to law enforcement.
There is a significant aberration that came in the summer of 2007 when White proposed a budget with 38 new law officers. The commission, however, had instituted its own hiring freeze amid Legislature-mandated spending caps and the looming vote on Amendment 1 to cut property tax revenue. It declined White's request amid acrimonious public debates and told the Sheriff's Office to subsist on a status quo budget. The scenario repeated in 2010, leading to White's appeal.
There are plenty of statistics to digest from each side. White compared his office to other counties and says he is entitled to more money and more personnel based on per-capital spending, officer-per-resident ratios and workloads per deputy. The county answered that this year White's law enforcement and detention spending will eat up nearly two-thirds of all property taxes in the general fund at a time that account is down $14 million after three consecutive years of double-digit declines in the tax rolls.
Pasco County's crime rate is down for the second consecutive year and now is close to the level it was in 2000, the year White was first elected sheriff. White said Pasco's crime rate hasn't dropped as much as comparable counties.
White is not being unreasonable in seeking nearly $1 million to cover mandated pension increases and higher health insurance premiums for his employees. And, the Cabinet certainly would be fair to consider that request accordingly.
Yet, at a news conference Friday, White also said layoffs won't be necessary if he has to cover that tab with existing resources which includes $71 million budgeted for salary and benefits.
Therein lies the task for the governor and Cabinet to sort out: Does he need the money or not?