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Pasco sheriff may be reaching too far for $11M federal grant

Pasco Sheriff Bob White is a gambler, but he could be looking at a sucker's bet. White is wagering the future employment of up to 60 officers on the belief government revenue will rebound enough in three years for Pasco County to afford a permanent multimillion-dollar increase of local tax money for law enforcement.

That is the upshot of the Sheriff's Office application for an $11 million, three-year grant for five dozen new deputies, even though county commissioners were reluctant to commit to the future payroll requirements.

We don't blame White for being tempted. The federal stimulus dollars, if obtained, could bolster a department he maintains is understaffed. But prudence is needed and commissioners were correct in early April to try to wave a red flag in front of the sheriff. County Administrator John Gallagher accurately characterized the grant as a balloon mortgage payment due in three years.

In effect, the county would need a minimum of $3.67 million in new dollars to maintain the grant-funded officers. The expectation that such a windfall will be available is far from guaranteed given the current exercise of trying to identify nearly $30 million worth of spending reductions and new revenue for the county budget year beginning Oct. 1. The county government is constrained by falling property values, new voter-approved exemptions for homeowners, and the recession-driven drop in sales and other tax collections. Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Office and the jail traditionally account for 55 percent of the property tax money in the county's general fund annually.

Two aspects of this public debate are troubling. The request for 60 officers, White said, is based on staffing levels suggested in a 2006 county report on a law enforcement impact fee. White said he was unaware that data is now obsolete because of outdated growth projections. Odd, considering he commented to the Times on just that fact in early January, the day the commission authorized reducing the impact fee. We trust the sheriff can substantiate the need for the 60 officers and isn't simply taking a number plucked from air.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri's response also is curious. She defended White's decision to seek the grant money, despite the accompanying questions, saying the sheriff was a constitutional officer with the ability to appeal commission budget decisions to the governor and cabinet.

Funny, but Mulieri never offered such a hands-off attitude toward White's predecessor. Under the Lee Cannon administration, and while Mulieri sat on the commission, the Pasco Sheriff's Office declined to seek federal anti-crime dollars, which put 100,000 officers on the street nationally, because it required matching dollars up front and a funding source after the three-year grant expired. The logic then? No guarantee the county could absorb the salaries and benefit costs afterward.

The county doesn't have to look far for some historical perspective. It can take a lesson from the Dade City Police Department. In the mid- and late-1990s, it added five officers for community-oriented police work with the U.S. government picking up 75 percent of the salaries for the first three years.

It worked fine until shortly after the bill came due. By 2003, a cash-strapped city required the police department to cut more than $400,000 just to remain in existence. The cuts included eliminating eight jobs, including three officers.

Pasco commissioners and the sheriff should be leery of repeating a similarly risky gamble.

Pasco sheriff may be reaching too far for $11M federal grant 04/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 7:54pm]
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