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New sheriff making a good start into tricky terrain

Al Nienhuis is leaving Pasco County, but not the chief law enforcement issue that is the bane of all local police agencies these days — working with less. Nienhuis, appointed sheriff of Hernando County last week by Gov. Charlie Crist to complete the term of recently elected U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, already instructed his commanders to look for cost savings. That was smart even if it turns out that Nugent squeezed every nickel available. A fresh perspective shouldn't be discouraged.

Nienhuis also was wise to save himself some political capital. In a popular move, he emphasized continuity by naming Capt. Mike Maurer as chief deputy, the same responsibility Nienhuis held in Pasco County under Sheriff Bob White. Maurer, the operations chief Nugent recommended as his successor, provides Nienhuis an immediate and imperative link of credibility to the agency's employees and the community at large.

Nienhuis' trip from west Pasco to Brooksville still leaves him in familiar territory. His agency must deal with domestic violence, prescription drug abuse, property crimes tied to foreclosures and high unemployment, and even parking enforcement issues at county parks.

But, he also must demonstrate a cognizance of the now-annual budget constraints faced by county commissioners. Hernando County already is projecting a $7 million deficit for the fiscal year that is nine months away. Like Pasco, it has suffered from three consecutive years of declining property values and less revenue from newer tax exemptions. In Hernando, however, commissioners have been steadfast against a property tax rate increase and have dipped into reserve accounts for three successive years to balance the county budget. That must end, though at least one commissioner wants to tap a construction fund originally earmarked for a new judicial center to help make ends meet in the coming year.

Over the past two years, Nugent has made do with less money than he wanted and shut down substations and a drug education program as a result. He also took on additional responsibilities including emergency management, countywide dispatching and running the county jail that had been operated by a private contractor.

In Pasco County, Nienhuis was part of an agency that bickered publicly with commissioners over spending — until it was an election year. The hostile rhetoric ramped up in 2010 and White now is appealing its status quo budget allocation to the governor and Cabinet.

The Pasco agency touts its efficiencies and says it put scores of additional deputies on patrol via job consolidations. However, Nienhuis also must avoid the previous decisions on non-essential spending at the Pasco Sheriff's Office that included exorbitant employee raises for consecutive years then complaining that there were no dollars to hire new deputies; a no-bid purchasing policy that had to be abandoned; take-home cars and fuel charged to taxpayers for civilian, non-emergency employees; a no-bid SUV for the sheriff; a human resources consultant with ill-defined and poorly documented duties; and even the far-fetched notion that permanent personnel costs could be absorbed by the one-time sale of an obsolete jail.

Looking for new efficiencies in Hernando's agency is a good start. Not repeating old mistakes is even more important.

New sheriff making a good start into tricky terrain 01/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 5:23pm]
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