Swapping boots on the street for analysts combing data and detectives targeting illicit narcotics, Sheriff Chris Nocco presented a reasonable and welcome budget plan to county commissioners this week that cuts Sheriff's Office spending and provides a needed respite from the theatrical money grab of his former boss.
Notably, Nocco is targeting the prescription drug epidemic, asking commissioners for a budget that will allow him to hire 23 new employees including 10 detectives, two sergeants, three intelligence analysts and eight health-care personnel for the jail. The costs are more than offset by $4.4 million in retirement savings due to changes mandated by the state Legislature. Overall, Nocco plans to cut his agency's spending by $3 million, or 3.5 percent, to $83.3 million.
A year ago, his predecessor, former Sheriff Bob White, wanted to hire 28 new officers to flood west Pasco with patrol deputies. White, who retired April 1, appealed his reduced budget to the governor and Cabinet and succumbed to histrionics — including calling for firing the county administrator — in a failed bid to boost law enforcement spending.
Nocco's budget proposal represents a change in political philosophy from confrontational to conciliatory and a recognition of the stressed finances across the county. It also marks a significant change in policing philosophy from reacting with patrol deputies to combatting crime by gathering intelligence, studying trends and acting accordingly. His budget proposal also is the initial step toward a long-term strategic plan for the agency that he expects to unveil after the first of the year. The intent, Nocco wrote to commissioners, is to make future budget negotiations more predictable and data driven.
Let's hope so. The budget battles between Pasco sheriffs and county commissioners extend through four administrations dating to the 1970s and are indicative of shortcomings on both sides — constitutional officers who fail to plan beyond the next election cycle and commissioners with other priorities or who now are hamstrung by years of declining revenues.
Nocco wisely wants to put the focus on prescription drugs and told commissioners in his written budget message:
• Prescription drug-related crimes accounted for 64 percent of the cases generated by the narcotics unit in 2010 and officers seized 28,000 pills that year, more than double the seizures from 2009.
• The agency's child protection team removed 390 children from unfit homes the past two years because of prescription drug abuse.
• The number of jail inmates going through detoxification more than doubled since 2009.
If approved, the dozen new officers will be split into two squads to build cases against street-level dealers, doctor shoppers, trafficking organizations and unscrupulous pain clinics.
Since 2009, 301 deaths in Pasco County are attributed to prescription drugs. Commissioners shouldn't hesitate to give the Pasco Sheriff's Office the tools it needs to curb the epidemic.