Chalk up another encouraging sign that fresh eyes are opening minds and tightening belts in Hernando County government.
Administrator David Hamilton and Sheriff Richard Nugent are researching the possibility of the Sheriff's Office absorbing the county Emergency Management Department. On Tuesday the County Commission gave its unanimous blessing to Hamilton to compile more detailed information about the legal and financial impacts of that move.
This proposal would be worth studying anytime. But it is particularly timely now because the six-member Emergency Management Department staff was reduced by 33 percent in the past month, with one of those vacancies being the director. Tom Leto was fired for lying to Hamilton about his relationship with his secretary and for not knowing, or not caring, that she was collecting pay for overtime she had not worked. The secretary, Stephanie Anderson, resigned shortly after she was charged with grand theft and official misconduct.
With those jobs open, it creates an unprecedented opportunity to examine both the structure and the function of the emergency department, and it is commendable that Hamilton has seized that circumstance to explore the option.
Paramount in making any change is the government's responsibility to maintain, and hopefully improve, public safety and the ability to prepare for and respond to emergencies. Secondary, but still very important in the process, is the financial consequence. If it can save taxpayers money it makes the decision that much easier for commissioners and their constitutional counterpart, the sheriff.
However, if it would overburden the resources of the Sheriff's Office, or dilute the commission's ability to serve its constituents in a crisis, then the idea loses promise.
It does not appear this transition would be drastic, or even noticeable, for Hernando County residents. For many practical intents and purposes, the Emergency Operations Center already is under the direction of the Sheriff's Office. The 2-year-old building is adjacent to the Sheriff's Office compound in Brooksville and the overwhelming majority of employees working there are on the sheriff's payroll. And, without a doubt, when an emergency occurs, Sheriff's Office workers are on the front lines in great numbers.
Hamilton has described this possible transfer of responsibility as another attempt to streamline county government operations and, as he thoughtfully puts it, "to have fewer managers and more management." It is a sensible goal.
In that vein, this idea would dovetail nicely into a renewed discussion about the Sheriff's Office assuming responsibility for emergency dispatch services of the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District. In addition to streamlining the utility of that operation, it offers a significant budget savings of $400,000 per year, according to previous estimates. If the sheriff is still willing, the County Commission has the authority to order that merger at any time. Regardless of the outcome of November's voter referendum about granting independence for the Spring Hill district, that idea makes sense fiscally and functionally for those elected representatives who are serious about easing the burden on taxpayers.
In the meantime, we are hopeful Hamilton and the sheriff will discover increased savings and services as they explore restructuring the Emergency Management Department.