This seasonal rite isn't as reliable as azalea blooms and baseball's spring training, but every March for most of the past five years, the Hernando County Commission has engaged in a debate about creating a separate taxing mechanism to fund the Sheriff's Office.
And even though changes in Florida's property tax structure have added a layer of relevance to the dialogue this year, there still is no compelling reason for law enforcement to be the only constitutional office in the county whose budget is singled out for additional scrutiny. If the goal is to inform the public about where their taxes are spent and make the sheriff more accountable for managing his money, then there are others ways to do it that do not create an additional layer of bureaucracy that is more costly and complicated.
Today the commission is scheduled to revisit the possibility of creating a municipal services taxing unit (MSTU) that will break out the expenditures of the Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office makes up about 30 percent of the $102-million of the commission's general fund budget this year. After coming under heavy fire from lower-tax activists to cut spending last year, and being saddled with mandated reductions in property tax rates from the state Legislature and a majority of voters, it is no wonder some commissioners are looking to shine the spending spotlight elsewhere.
We agree residents should be much more aware of who is spending their taxes. Such knowledge arms voters with the information they need to make informed decisions at the polls about who is satisfying, or sidestepping, that burden of accountability. But that informational mission can be accomplished in other ways.
Last year, the commission agreed to print pamphlets that explained exactly how the budget is broken down. In a simple-to-understand pie chart format, it included the Sheriff's Office portion, as well as all other facets of government spending that fall under the County Commission's purview. It also included formation about the School Board, which taxes residents even more than the commission.
For the nominal cost of $4,900, that pamphlet, which was intended to have been mailed to every taxpayer along with the annual Truth in Millage notices, could have been an effective educational tool.
But the commissioners, in a remarkably shortsighted decision, later decided the expense was not warranted. They just posted the information on the commission's Web site and let people know they could look up more details in the actual budget. The commission saved about $4,000 to keep the majority of residents in the dark and make it even more difficult to withstand the blitz of misinformation that fueled the contentious tone of last summer's budget hearings.
This would be a good time to resurrect that sensible plan, with the will required to implement it, rather than pursuing an MSTU for the Sheriff's Office.
There also is some talk of lumping the cost of running the county jail into the proposed MSTU for the Sheriff's Office, and labeling it "public safety."
If the commission's ultimate goal is accountability, that would be patently unfair to the sheriff, who has absolutely no control over the jail, which is operated by a private firm contracted by the commission. If the commission is philosophically inclined to separate expenses via MSTUs, then do it for the sheriff, the jail and all the other constitutional officers. Residents probably would like to see how their hard-earned dollars are spent for those government functions, too.
But if the commission wisely decides to maintain the status quo and not create an MSTU for the Sheriff's Office, then Sheriff Richard Nugent needs to voice his willingness to trim his budget in proportion with the cuts the commission will have to make this year to offset the shortfalls brought on by the passage of Amendment 1. The reduced revenue from property taxes is likely to make a significant difference in the delivery of services, and even though public safety is the paramount function of government, costs for law enforcement also must be reduced and all expenditures justified.
When the commission begins to feel the heat for its spending plan at budget hearings later this year, the sheriff should vow to be there with them to defend his corner of the kitchen. Residents can relate to that brand of accountability more than a line on a tax bill.