Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats put some drama into county budget hearings recently with his dire prediction of streets "littered with human carnage" if his department is forced to cut its spending by 10 percent, as the Pinellas County administration has requested. Yes, Coats was exaggerating for effect in predicting "a significant crime increase" if he has to trim $26-million from his budget. However, he is right when he argues that all budget cuts aren't — and shouldn't be — equal.
While local officials will have to tighten their belts, maybe to the point of pain, some discomforts are less acceptable than others. For example, would you rather wait five minutes for the clerk's office to answer the phone because of staffing shortages or the Sheriff's Office? All government functions are not the same when it comes to a community's priorities, and county commissioners should acknowledge that up front in the budget process.
Coats warned that the cuts asked of his office would threaten popular programs, including community policing, DUI enforcement units and sexual predator and offender tracking. "If you eliminate our resources, what do you expect us to do?" Coats asked county commissioners.
At least one commissioner took that as a threat. "It's not us vs. you," said Chairman Bob Stewart. "I mean, we're in this thing together."
Both men have a point. Coats was not being cooperative and was probably betting the public would come out on his side. That may be seen as unprofessional by some, but it's not the first time a constitutional officer has had to play that budget game.
Meanwhile, Stewart and the other commissioners cannot avoid making the difficult and politically unpopular budget decisions themselves. When you start the process by asking for an across-the-board cut of 10 percent, you're tacitly judging every department's needs as being equal. That's just not reality.
Maybe commissioners are afraid they will appear to be playing favorites as they decide the budgets for a group of otherwise independent officials. This is no time to look for the easy way out. Considering the threat to government revenues from tax cuts, legislative action and a slumping economy, both commissioners and constitutional officers will have to develop a lot more backbone.
The sheriff provides a number of services that are mandatory, such as housing jail inmates in a safe and secure environment, and other services that are expendable but popular with the public. Coats no doubt overstated the consequences of the budget cuts, but if something goes wrong at the jail or on the streets, he will be the one taking the blame.
No local official will escape wielding the budget knife and all will have to set their own priorities wisely, including Coats. Yet it would be a shame to lose some sheriff's services, such as crime prevention programs aimed at juveniles. Not only are young lives saved, but in the long run these kind of programs save money.
On such points, Coats and commissioners should work together to make the difficult choices they face.