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Sheriff's budget withstands a few questions

Sheriff Richard Nugent successfully defended his budget to county commissioners Wednesday, fending off Commissioner Chris Kingsley's push for cuts during a workshop.

Kingsley noted that Nugent had requested 17 new positions for the coming year, 12 of which will be paid for through federal grants. Although the county will avoid the expense initially, he said, over time the grants will evaporate and taxpayers will be left with the bill.

"There's going to be a day of reckoning," Kingsley warned. "Are you absolutely sure you couldn't pare something? . . . I see it as a need for reduction."

Nugent said eliminating all the grant-funded slots would save $105,000. Not adding the deputies to the streets, however, would hurt service to residents. The commission also has increased his department's workload by making new rules deputies must enforce, he added.

"I've come to the board with what I think is necessary," Nugent said.

He easily persuaded other commissioners.

Chairwoman Nancy Robinson argued that every new deputy is necessary, and the county will benefit by taking advantage of federal grants to offset local costs. She lauded the Sheriff's Office for providing excellent service to the community.

Commissioner Diane Rowden agreed, adding that she did not believe Nugent was empire-building.

"When it comes to safety, we can't go out there trying to decide whether we get a bargain or not," Rowden said, again promoting the idea of a special tax for the Sheriff's Office. "You (Nugent) should not have to stand up here and grovel to people who are challenging whether you need people, which I feel you do."

Outnumbered, Kingsley backed down, but only after making clear that he was not attacking the quality of law enforcement in Hernando County. But all other facets of government are making cuts, he said, and the Sheriff's Office should participate.

Nugent said his office is looking for ways to absorb $197,000 in unexpected retirement costs so the amount does not have to come from tax revenue.

Commissioners also reviewed the budgets for Fire Rescue, Public Works and Parks. They made no changes.

Having concluded their workshop, commissioners set the tentative millage rates for fiscal 2003. The general fund rates will total $8.3204 per $1,000 of assessed value, unchanged from the current year, although the county estimates property owners will pay an additional $773,117 in taxes because of rising values.

A new emergency medical services tax of 57 cents per $1,000 would be charged to residents outside the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District, which will have a tax rate of $2.75 per $1,000, unchanged from the current rate. The Township 22 tax rate will be $3 per $1,000, also unchanged, and the sensitive lands fund will remain 10 cents per $1,000.

Commissioners could reduce the tax rates during budget hearings, tentatively set for Sept. 5 and Sept. 16. Once the property appraiser announces the tentative rates, however, the commission cannot increase them.

The commission canceled its workshop that had been scheduled for today.

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.

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