Pasco Sheriff Bob White's "cops over concrete'' budget proposal could have just as easily been labeled "drama over diligence."
The theatrics of the sheriff's rehearsed departure — a commission walk-out taken from the property appraiser's playbook — robbed White and the commissioners of an opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue Tuesday. Had the sheriff and his posse hung around the morning-long budget workshop, they would have learned how the other half of the public safety equation — fire protection and ambulance service — is getting by.
Consider: The county has four fire stations without ambulances because of budget constraints. The fire department gave up 42 positions, including 33 firefighters and four inspectors, over the past three years. And, if unionized firefighters opt to take a previously negotiated salary increase, it means closing a station seasonally, reducing the number of advanced life support engines from nine to four and rolling engines on a rotating basis with two-person crews instead of three. In other words, things are tough all over, not just at the Sheriff's Office.
Likewise, it would have behooved White and his department to hear how the commission is wrestling with increased firefighting and ambulance costs — by raising fees and taxes.
The commission already approved higher fees for ambulance service and plans to raise the property tax rate in the fire district. The new money is intended to cover the expense of hiring 15 firefighters to reduce overtime and to pay for mandatory increases in pension and insurance costs for the fire department personnel.
Yet, commissioners have given no indication they are willing to do likewise for White's employees. The price tag of the higher pension and insurance in the sheriff's budget is $1.6 million. There is no separate tax or law enforcement fee the commission can raise to cover the cost.
Still, commissioners have decided to advertise a slight millage increase in the county's general fund budget, which finances the Sheriff's Office and other services. It will raise an additional $4.4 million — money the commission says it will to use to offset proposed cuts elsewhere, to keep in reserve or to even lower the tax rate closer to the current level.
There have been no public discussions about using a portion of that property tax increase to help the sheriff balance his budget. Too bad. The logical expense to be targeted should be the pension and insurance payments.
The commission is set on a zero percent increase for the sheriff's $85 million budget. The sheriff, meanwhile, keeps telling the commission they can improve law enforcement without raising taxes because of his far-fetched idea to sell the west Pasco jail.
Instead of strutting out of the budget workshop with a pithy and misleading quote, White would have better served his agency with a simple request: Treat us the same as the fire department.