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Police force's future uncertain

In three consecutive days last week, the city of Brooksville learned the basic issues that may decide the future of its Police Department:

On Wednesday, police Chief Ed Tincher defended his department _ and its $1.14-million annual budget _ before a task force that is trying to cut costs in the city.

On Thursday, Hernando County Sheriff Tom Mylander told the task force his office could do the same job for $370,000 less.

On Friday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released the results of an investigation into Tincher's handling of guns. It cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing but found that he was "involved in a progressive pattern of questionable incidents, both professional and personal, involving the trade, sale and purchase of firearms."

"I'm certain (the task force and City Council) cannot help but have an eye on that report," interim City Manager Jim Malcolm said of those who will decide to retain or replace the department.

"(The report on Tincher) probably came at the most inopportune time," said Mayor Joe Bernardini.

The task force, a group of residents with expertise in finance or urban affairs, faces the first decision. Since being formed in April, the task force has considered a variety of cuts. Members have agreed not to discuss their plans until the group releases its recommendations, probably next month.

The elimination of the Police Department, with a budget that takes up one quarter of the city's general fund, is probably the most dramatic measure it has yet discussed.

"For whatever reason, the Police Department has found itself on the chopping block," Tincher acknowledged.

But "putting 28 people out of work and paying them unemployment, I don't see that as anything positive for the city of Brooksville," he said. "Almost everyone in my agency has come to me with very serious concerns about their jobs, and I can't answer them yet."

City Council members say it is too early to determine the merit of the sheriff's proposal. But, especially in the light of the FDLE report, some believe it merits serious consideration.

"It's definitely something to look at," said council member Joe Johnston III. "But it would require intense scrutiny before making such a drastic change."

Mylander's proposal would put the same number of deputies on the streets as there now are police officers: three during the day and evening shifts, two during the midnight shift.

Investigations and crime-scene processing would be handled by the existing units in the Sheriff's Office, said Chief Deputy Don Shields. It was not known whether the office would need to hire more deputies to cover those duties.

Much of the money would be saved by eliminating administrative duties.

The plan, Shields said, is still sketchy, but the $775,000 cost the sheriff quoted at last week's meeting is the most he would charge the city.

"There are no nuts and bolts to it at this point . . . but this is a maximum figure," Shields said.

Despite the sheriff's presentation, his deputies would have a hard time doing the job the Police Department does, Tincher said. His officers generally come to the scene within two or three minutes of being called, he said. They know city business owners and their concerns. The detectives have an intimate knowledge of criminal activity in Brooksville, he said.

One option may be to permanently assign sheriff's deputies to the city so they could learn it as the current police officers have, Malcolm said.

By supporting either the city police or the sheriff's deputies who may replace them, the people of Brooksville pay extra for law enforcement.

The council members agree on one point: that any step should be taken with extreme caution and that residents should let city officials know what they want the city to do with their money.

"The people have a right to have input on their budget and their services," said council member Mary Ann Lazowski. "I want people to get on their telephone and tell me what they want, and so far I haven't heard diddly squat."