Pasco County's general fund budget will be $42 million lighter in 2012 than it was four years ago, but it still has room for beefed up law enforcement. Absent a formal vote, commissioners correctly signaled that intent Tuesday afternoon after a nearly two-hour budget presentation from the Sheriff's Office that included an unexpected plea from Sen. Mike Fasano. The focus is curbing the prescription drug abuse that has put Pasco and Pinellas counties at the epicenter of fatal overdoses.
Pasco has one of the highest per-capita rates of oxycodone deaths in Florida and Pasco-Pinellas leads the state in the number of people fatally overdosing on the most lethal prescription drugs, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. Statewide, 2,710 deaths last year were caused by prescription drug overdoses, up 8.9 percent from 2009, including 763 people in Pasco and Pinellas counties.
"We are leading the way in a very wrong statistic,'' Fasano told commissioners.
Drug use, however, doesn't stop at the pill-mill cash register. Robberies, home invasions, and homicides are the byproducts of addiction and trafficking. Meanwhile, the sheriff's child protection team removed 390 children from homes the past two years because of prescription drug abuse and the number of jail inmates going through detoxification more than doubled since 2009.
Fighting prescription drug abuse is the greatest law enforcement need in the county, Sheriff Chris Nocco said, and toward that end he proposed an $83.3 million budget for his office, $3 million less than the current spending plan with most of the decline attributed to reduced pension contributions. Included is a pitch to hire a dozen officers for the narcotics unit, three crime analysts and eight health care workers for the jail. Nearly all of the duties for the new hires will be tied to prescription drugs.
Though concerned about future state-mandated pension costs, the commissioners have no sound reason to refuse Nocco's request. They've already set a status quo property tax rate and absorbed a $3.3 million drop in property tax revenue, in part, because of the $1.1 million in unspent money Nocco plans to return from his current budget.
Plugging even more money into reserve accounts or asking Nocco to cut his budget request while bolstering funding for economic recruiting incentives would be counterproductive. Try luring new businesses when you're known statewide for drug overdoses, Fasano observed.
But, even targeting street-level buys, organized traffickers and unscrupulous pain management clinics won't end the drug epidemic.
"We're not going to arrest ourselves out of the problem,'' warned Vice and Narcotics Lt. Charles Balderstone.
Indeed. Treatment and education programs for the public, compliance with the new prescription drug data bate by health care professionals, legislative remedies and vigilant police work are all vital components to curbing prescription drug abuse. Pasco commissioners can fulfill their role by allowing the Sheriff's Office to expand its role.