Pasco Sheriff Bob White is morphing from law enforcement to community redevelopment. He should keep his day job. • Tuesday afternoon, White described his proposed budget for the coming year as economic development 101 — putting more deputies on the streets in two west Pasco locations as a precursor for what he envisions to be private-sector investing in two largely blue-collar residential areas. He also thinks someone will pay $10 million for a 30-year-old jail and redevelop it into office space.
It is unrealistic. Selling off real estate assets — that don't belong to the sheriff — to finance temporarily a payroll expansion is a flawed short-term fix. It also is highly unlikely to be consummated because of the down real estate market that has left an abundance of vacant commercial property in the county.
The real estate pitch is the centerpiece of White's proposed 4.6 percent budget increase revealed just two weeks after commissioners asked him and other constitutional officers to absorb 5 percent budget reductions. The request came as the county searches for new fees, taps reserves and pursues cuts elsewhere to close a multimillion-dollar shortfall in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Property Appraiser Mike Wells and Elections Supervisor Brian Corley honored the request, and Circuit Court Clerk Paula O'Neil trimmed her budget about 1.3 percent. Only White failed to acknowledge the plea even though he was the only constitutional officer in the room at the time the commission made it.
Instead, White's proposed $3.9 million addition, some of which is state-mandated retirement contributions, puts the county general fund in an even deeper financial hole if commissioners approve it unabridged. Don't count on it.
White's request for 28 new deputies to be split between Holiday and the greater Embassy Hills area follows on the 24 new hires in the current budget financed via a federal grant. Smartly, the county, not White, already is setting aside money to be able to absorb those salary and benefit costs after the three-year grant expires in 2012.
White, so far, fails to make a compelling reason for his west Pasco surge. Mirroring a statewide trend, the county crime rate dropped nearly 8 percent in 2009. And, if Holiday and Embassy Hills require additional police presence, why did the sheriff assign two-thirds of the newly hired grant-funded deputies to central and east Pasco?
The changing demographics of the west side are well documented. Former retiree homes flipped to rental properties or were sold to working-class families seeking reasonably priced housing. The transition brought different demands on schools, law enforcement and other public infrastructure. But sliding real estate values, additional tax exemptions, recession-driven drops in sales and other tax collections, and legislative-mandated spending caps have left local governments and school districts across the state scrambling to balance their budgets for three consecutive years. In addition, the county is projecting budget shortfalls of as much as $31 million through 2013.
It is a bleak financial picture, and liquidating fixed assets is not the way to balance the budget. Added law enforcement in 2010 is a no-sale unless the sheriff and commission can agree on a more reasonable financing plan.