Don't be looking for additional deputies anytime soon in Pasco County. While new deputy sheriff positions aren't part of the current county budget, Pasco commissioners signaled Tuesday additional officers won't be forthcoming in the near future, either.
"That's probably an accurate assumption,'' agreed Sheriff Bob White. "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.''
White's reasonable comments came Tuesday afternoon a few hours after commissioners, with no public discussion, authorized tweaking a pending impact fee for law enforcement that will lower the amount to be paid by owners of new residential and commercial buildings. The updated fee proposal no longer will include money to cover the cost of providing patrol cars, uniforms, firearms and other equipment for new deputies.
The original plan, presented to commissioners in the summer of 2006, is obsolete because it was based on staffing levels that can no longer be considered reliable, Assistant County Administrator Daniel Johnson said in a memorandum to commissioners. In other words, the county isn't going to bother accumulating money for equipment when no additional deputies will be hired to use the gear.
It is simple economics. Salaries and benefits for Sheriff's Office employees cannot be covered by impact fees and instead come from the general fund constrained by a sour economy, lower tax revenues and voter-approved property tax exemptions. The Sheriff's Office traditionally accounts for 55 percent of the property taxes in the general fund each year.
The commission's action Tuesday is a sign of budget realties already duplicated by other departments. The county, for instance, has enough impact fee revenue collected to add to its district park in Wesley Chapel, but cannot afford to absorb new, higher operating and maintenance costs that would accompany the expansion.
While parks are popular quality-of-life enhancements for Pasco, the adequacy of Sheriff's Office staffing has been a matter of public debate for more than two decades. White asked for 109 new positions, including 25 deputies, in 2007 at the same time commission-controlled departments were under a hiring freeze to meet state-mandated spending caps. The commission correctly asked the sheriff to share the pain. White's more modest election-year budget in 2008 eliminated much of the commission's acrimony toward his spending.
Still, the future size of the department remains in limbo. The 2006 law enforcement master plan suggested adding an average of 24 officers a year over 10 years, but its growth projections are no longer valid. Through the first 11 months of 2008, the county issued just 1,137 permits for new single-family homes — down from the more than 7,200 permits in 2005. The updated fee — proposed at $649 per single-family home in 2006 — is intended to cover other capital spending tied to law enforcement including a jail expansion and sheriff's substations.
While a consultant recalculates the proposed impact fee, the commission, its staff and the sheriff must continue their renewed cooperative efforts to fund public safety amid difficult fiscal realities.