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BRACED FOR CUTS ... AGAIN

COUNTY: Sheriff says Amendment 1 stops at his door.

A day after Florida voters approved an amendment cutting property taxes, Sheriff Bob White said his agency should be immune from any budget cuts.

"The amendment really has nothing to do with the Sheriff's Office,'' White said Wednesday.

Given that the sheriff's budget consumes more than half of Pasco's property tax revenue in the general fund, White's position struck one county commissioner as odd.

"Anybody who would make up 50-something percent of the budget...and not think he would be included in the cuts is quite frankly very naive," Commissioner Michael Cox said. "It shows a lack of understanding of the budget process."

But White said budgeting is "all about priorities,'' and he criticized commissioners for their failure to fully fund his previous requests.

"They're still back in the '70s," White said. "They need to come into the 21st century."

Commissioners reacted colorfully to that remark.

"We're back in the '70s? Hey, we've advanced - we were a Third World country," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. She was referring to White's crack in 2006 about the county's frugal treatment of his agency's finances.

"He must be referring to (County Administrator) John Gallagher's furniture," Cox said. "Because Gallagher is sitting in a chair from the 1970s and the sheriff is sitting in a brand new leather sofa set."

Under the constitutional amendment passed Tuesday, Pasco County will lose $16-million from its $161-million in property taxes in the general fund.

White, who supported the amendment, called it a "no-brainer" that is "healthy for the state." Its passage means the county will not spend $700,000 set aside for hiring 10 deputies. It was contingent on the amendment failing.

But he said its financial impact should stop at his door.

"It won't affect us as long as the people who control our budget make law enforcement a priority," he said.

He noted how the county's overall budget has ballooned in recent years while property tax collections, which fund the Sheriff's Office, have grown more slowly as the commission reduced the tax rate.

The entire county budget is $1.1-billion, but that includes impact fees, utility bills and other revenue that cannot be used for law enforcement.

The new property tax reduction threatens to pinch other county services for 2009 even further than state-mandated rate cuts this year. Pasco enjoyed a boom in new construction and rising property values that added $8-million in tax revenue, despite the lower tax rate.

Pasco budget director Mike Nurrenbrock anticipates nowhere near the same level of property growth next budget year.

Though no one is suggesting it, cutting $16-million from the general fund would be like wiping out the entire $12.5-million budget for the 10,700-acre parks department - and then looking for more cuts. It also would wipe out the $10-million budget to run libraries, or the expansion of the Land O'Lakes jail.

Last year, county officials talked about charging for library cards and even closing libraries if the deeper cuts passed.

Pasco officials began Friday preparing for the next budget. Nurrenbrock said he told department heads to forget about spending more money - even if the amendment failed.

Nurrenbrock said the county hopes to avoid layoffs by not filling job openings. A semihiring freeze has been in place last summer. All new hires have to be approved by Gallagher.

If the Sheriff's Office is forced to absorb half the losses, or about $8-milion, that's equal to about $1 out of every $10 White pays in his budget for salaries.

But he said Wednesday he is optimistic, and predicted he and the county would "work hand in hand."

"I think that now our job is to forget about what happened last night," he said, referring to the amendment's passage. "It's law. We're going to deal with it."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com.

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