Who knew free money could be so complicated? The Pasco Sheriff's Office is looking at a three-year, $4.3 million federal economic stimulus grant to add 24 deputies to its department. It's long way from the 60 deputies that Sheriff Bob White requested, but much more palatable considering the long-term price tag that must be assumed locally when the grant expires.
White wants to parlay part of the windfall into resurrecting the helicopter unit he planned to disband amid a shrinking county budget. Unfortunately, it's not just a case of rearranging job titles for pilots-turned-patrol deputies. The helicopters carry $232,000 in annual operating costs in the sheriff's budget and a $60,000 hangar lease paid for by the county.
In addition, the county must come up with $400,000 for one-time capital costs associated with the 24 new hires — not counting Penny for Pasco sales tax money for the cruisers.
Though not a requirement, prudent planning also should dictate the county set aside $360,000 for each of the next three years to help absorb the 24 deputies' salaries and benefits that will transfer entirely to the county in October 2012.
By our math, that's as much $1.05 million in unanticipated expenses from the first year of the federal grant. White proposed to forgo his initial request of $639,000 for eight new deputies to help offset the expense. That's big of him, but those hires were not guaranteed and, in fact, highly unlikely to be approved by commissioners whose own budget proposal calls for laying off 127 people and eliminating 132 vacant positions within county government.
By law, the $60,000 hangar lease is the responsibility of the county and it would be unwise to ground the aerial unit over that modest expenditure. However, White should be prepared to do some horse-trading as well and help identify savings within his own agency to cover the helicopters' $232,000 operating costs — savings he earlier promoted as a way to put more feet on the street to beef up road patrol units.
In June, while announcing the first version of his proposed budget — the one that excised the aviation unit — the sheriff told journalists he was reducing or eliminating important — but not essential — services. If the helicopters aren't essential, then it is imperative for White to help find the money to keep them flying or else ground them for the more vital purpose of road patrol.
The dollars may seem miniscule compared to the $150 million in property taxes in the general fund, but White's agency annually takes up to 55 percent of that money for law enforcement and the jail. Meanwhile, commissioners are trying to spread around $11 million from a proposed property tax increase to soften more than $30 million in expected budget cuts. Of particular note is the commission's budget proposal to lay off 20 firefighter/emergency medical technicians financed from the general fund.
Here's where White's leadership is key. The $292,000 for the aerial unit's overhead costs and hangar lease is enough to pay the salary and benefits for five first-year firefighter/EMTs.
In suggesting a few weeks ago he would be open to overseeing the county's fire department, White said he would work to save money and to preserve firefighters' jobs if given the chance.
Here's an opportunity to prove it.