Pasco commissioners kept using the word "transparency'' to advocate creating a new taxing district to pay for county law enforcement, but the only thing transparent Tuesday was the commission's attempt to dump more public relations work on Sheriff Bob White without a thorough vetting of a new tax.
On a relatively quick 4-0 vote, the commission said it wanted a separate line item on property tax bills to spell out how much it costs to pay for Sheriff's Office law enforcement. The four cities with their own police departments would be excluded from the municipal service taxing unit. Separate accounts to run the Pasco jail, provide court bailiffs and perhaps other functions that cross municipal lines — the sheriff's helicopter unit, for instance — will remain in the county's general fund financed by all Pasco property taxpayers.
In that regard, the newly created tax district does provide tax fairness for property owners in Dade City, Zephyrhills, New Port Richey and Port Richey who have been paying for both the Sheriff's Office and their own municipal departments. Their 2011 county general fund tax rate could drop by more than $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation bill under the new system. As a consequence, however, county contributions to city redevelopment funds will be less each year since the general fund will now be collecting fewer tax dollars from the cities.
Conversely, property owners in the taxing district — all of unincorporated Pasco — likely will see their combined millage increase. The reduced general fund tax rate will be more than offset by a projected $3 per $1,000 law enforcement tax.
But tax fairness for cities' residents — a combined 10 percent of the county's population — wasn't the motivating factor. It wasn't even discussed. The commission wanted to relieve the headache of battling with the sheriff over his annual budget in light of White's resistance to past attempts to reduce his spending. However, forcing White to sell his budget proposals to the public is of little consequence if the commission approves his unabridged spending requests. Commissioner Pat Mulieri, in particular, already indicated a willingness to acquiesce to whatever White wants.
It's an imprudent stance. Separating the sheriff's law enforcement spending is a dangerous precursor to giving in to the temptation to hold harmless the Sheriff's Office budget while asking the rest of county services to continue to absorb budget cuts.
Commissioners are now trying to identify $15 million worth of budget reductions or new fees to balance the 2011 budget and their staff is predicting $31 million worth of similar decisions needed in 2012 and 2013. The sheriff's budget request to the commission is due June 1 and commissioners asked White and the other constitutional officers to cut their budgets 5 percent for the coming year.
On the flip side, pushing the law enforcement into a separate taxing district also has consequences once the economy rebounds.
The commission effectively limited future Sheriff's Office spending increases to minimal levels because of a past legislative mandate. That, too, is poor planning in an area that has witnessed changing demographics and crime trends even with stagnate population growth.
Three years ago, the Legislature tied local government tax increases to per capita personal income growth. (Florida's per capital personal income fell 3.3 percent in 2009 compared to the previous year.) Exceeding the state mandate requires a fourth-fifths vote of the commission, a prospect that seems unlikely given the board's election-year reluctance to consider property tax increases and the ongoing quest to slap new or higher fees on such things as ambulance calls and fire protection.
The county is looking at creative, though sometimes objectionable ways, to raise money in order to limit service cuts amid continued budget constraints. Regardless, there is no compelling reason for law enforcement to be the only constitutional office in the county with a separate financing tool.