There is significant sympathy for Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent, who is being asked to cut 13 percent, or $4.2 million, from his current $33 million budget. Difficult choices confront all corners of Hernando County government, where the commission must identify $10.5 million in spending cuts or new revenue to close a hole in the next county budget.
But those tasks ahead shouldn't be used as an excuse to establish a new taxing unit for law enforcement. Separating the sheriff's spending (not to be confused with the county responsibility of contracting for jail operations) is a precursor to giving in to the temptation to hold harmless the Sheriff's Office budget while asking the rest of county services to absorb double-digit percentage cuts.
The challenge to the commission is not whether it should make cuts, but to make cuts fairly. A new municipal service taxing unit for law enforcement will only complicate matters and could shift too much of the burden elsewhere. Even though public safety is the paramount function of government, costs for law enforcement also must be reduced and all expenditures justified.
It is a familiar issue. This is the sixth consecutive year someone has raised the idea of a separate line-item on property tax bills dedicated to law enforcement. Even Nugent balked in the past, saying there had been no strong case made for the taxing unit. This year, however, he is open to the suggestion.
His change of heart is understandable. Certainly everyone is looking for creative ways to limit service cuts amid an upcoming budget constrained by falling revenue attributed to declining property values, voter-approved exemptions and shrinking tax receipts. Regardless, there still is no compelling reason for law enforcement to be the only constitutional office in the county with a separate financing tool. Try explaining to the senior citizen losing Meals on Wheels service why law enforcement is worthy of a separate tax, but elderly nutrition is not.
We will repeat our previous suggestion. If the commission is philosophically inclined to separate expenses via MSTUs, then do it for the sheriff, the jail and all the other constitutional officers. Residents probably would like to see how their hard-earned dollars are spent for those government functions, too.