Give Pasco Sheriff Bob White credit for thinking outside the cell, but the idea of turning a 30-year-old jail and office complex into a multimillion-dollar windfall to finance additional deputies is flawed and unrealistic.
White revealed the plan Thursday to Times staff writer Jodie Tillman, saying the 50,000-square-foot-building off Little Road in west Pasco could fetch $10 million, cash he would then use to hire more deputies. It's indicative of the desperation among elected officials as they seek to maintain services in the face of a prolonged free fall of revenue from shrinking property tax rolls. Even if there was a market for vacant jail space and some occupied offices, White's thinking is presumptive at best and shows a lack of foresight.
Building and maintaining the jail and administrative offices is the responsibility of the Pasco commission, not the Sheriff's Office. If the structure and land beneath it could be sold — and that is highly unlikely — the proceeds remain in control of the commission. Using one-time revenue for continuing personnel costs — even if a portion of the money is held in escrow to pay for multiple years' worth of salaries and benefits — is ill-conceived. At some point, the personnel costs will need to be covered by property taxes, turning this supposed windfall into a potentially large-scale budget buster.
It also is unwise of the county to liquidate an asset for which it presumes a future need. White closed the west Pasco jail in the current budget and moved all correctional functions to the newly expanded Land O'Lakes jail to save the expense of hiring new guards there. At the time, however, he acknowledged a likely need to reopen the west-side jail in the future when population growth triggers additional crimes. Holding onto a jail you think you'll need makes more sense. As a lesson, we point to Hernando County where the County Commission sold a downtown Brooksville hospital for $1.1 million in 2007 and now is examining leasing it back — at a substantially higher price — for court space.
And, to whom do you market a 50,000-square-foot building in need of extensive remodeling that comes with a shortage of parking? Inmates do not need assigned parking spots. Employees in white-collar jobs would.
Real estate professionals said they are unaware of potential buyers in a market where bargains abound because of a vacancy rate for retail space of 25 to 30 percent across the county.
"Why would anybody buy something that has to be completely rebuilt if you can get stuff for half the price?'' asked Greg Armstrong, the immediate past president of the West Pasco Board of Realtors.
White's suggestion, we must point out, also contradicts the historical track record of redeveloping office buildings in this market. The nearby county-owned building that houses his west Pasco operations center, the utilities building in front of it and the David H. Clark county building in Land O'Lakes were all distressed office buildings acquired by Pasco County because the owners could find no other takers. Government tends to be the buyer, not the sellers, when office buildings go on the local market. Even those that come with a basketball hoop.
White should lock up this idea and throw away the key. Financing public safety in Pasco County requires more than raiding capital accounts or banking on a one-time cash infusion from an improbable source.