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Sheriff's buying rules faulty

Pasco Sheriff Bob White, elected two years ago amid promises of fiscal responsibility, is asking everyone to trust his bargain-hunting instincts. The public has no alternative. There won't be documentation to allow comparison-shopping.

In obliterating financial safety nets used by other public agencies, White and the Pasco Sheriff's Office last month eliminated its previous purchasing guidelines. White now says the agency isn't required to seek competitive bids, or even multiple price quotes, unless it is spending more than $50,000 for an item.

The sheriff's former rules required formal competitive bids on items costing $3,000 or more, as well as written quotes from at least three vendors for items costing more than $1,000.

As a safeguard, the new policy requires all purchases of more than $5,000 to be approved by everyone in the chain of command, including the sheriff. Essentially, they have turned the agency's top brass into purchasing agents checking prices to ensure the department doesn't overspend. So, are we left with Bob White, sheriff, or Bob Barker, host of The Price is Right?

White justified the new rules as a way to streamline his agency and make purchases faster. We don't dispute the speed, but the ability to get to the express checkout line shouldn't guide public spending decisions. White also suggested it might be a money-saver because vendors will be eager to do business, since they won't have to deal with the paperwork of preparing a competitive bid.

How would White know? Without a prerequisite for multiple quotes, there's no telling what is a good price.

The political implications are just as troubling. In theory, White can now base spending decisions on which vendor has been a loyal political supporter rather than which has the best price. In his defense, White has shown no such inclination, but the potential still exists.

School superintendent John Long won't accept campaign contributions from people or companies that do business with the school district. White, if he seeks re-election in two years, should adopt a similar stance to avoid the potential for abuse.

Better yet, White should abandon this policy altogether, particularly because the agency misquoted the source of the idea.

As Times staff writer Ryan Davis reported, White and sheriff's chief financial officer Alan Herring identified George Sellery, finance manager of the Seminole County Sheriff's Office, as the architect of the recommendation.

Sellery told reporter Davis he supported the higher threshold for competitive bids, but still requires other checks, including a minimum of three written quotes for purchases of $10,000 or more.

The Pasco Sheriff's Office has no other safeguards besides White and his top aides using their law enforcement expertise to recognize excessive spending.

But, even a well-intentioned sheriff can overlook the details when it comes to dollars and cents. A year ago, White submitted a $56-million budget proposal "to work within the confines that we have, keep our staffing levels where they are." He failed to acknowledge at the time that the spending request included money to hire five new bailiffs.

This year, Sheriff White became testy when quizzed by a reporter about budget amendments that increased the size of his budget request to an 8 percent increase over the current year. The sheriff's budget traditionally draws scrutiny because it accounts for nearly half of all the money raised by local property taxes assessed by the County Commission.

Imagine how much easier it would be for White to fend off questions about his spending habits if he had written proof of his frugality. Proof that he just eliminated for the sake of prudent fiscal stewardship.