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BOARD SPLIT ON SHERIFF'S SAVINGS

Commissioners plan to question the sheriff about the $1.3 million he wants to keep.

One county commissioner thinks that if Sheriff Richard Nugent has saved money in his budget this year, his agency should get to keep it.

Another says Nugent may have slowed the rate of growth in his budget but he doesn't plan to spend less this year than last year.

Hernando County commissioners will have plenty of questions at tonight's first public budget hearing for Nugent about his most recent proposal to save a number of programs from the chopping block.

County administration also plans to present an analysis of the sheriff's spending.

On Wednesday, the St. Petersburg Times first reported that Nugent proposed keeping $1.3 million that he expects to have left over from his current budget rather than turning it back to the county.

That money would help offset the $2 million in cuts that the county administration has asked Nugent to make in his 2009-10 budget.

Nugent said the money could spare popular and needed programs and positions from the budget ax, including the DARE drug-prevention program, marine, aviation and traffic deputies, community policing and crime prevention.

The sheriff would still lose substations, two detectives and the gang prevention program if the county insists on the full amount of budget cuts.

In past years, Nugent wrote a check to the county with whatever was left over. The amount varied from year to year and last year he returned just over $619,606 to the county's general fund coffers.

Nugent expects to realize $1.4 million in savings in this year's budget. Since the county already figured it would get $100,000 back, Nugent is asking to keep the remaining $1.3 million.

"I think the sheriff is to be commended in his efforts to streamline his operation and save money and certainly he should realize some of the rewards of his efforts monetarily,'' said Commission Chairman Dave Russell.

He said the sheriff clearly wanted to save some programs he might otherwise lose and utilizing the savings would be a start. "That's something we need to talk about,'' Russell said.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he also wants to talk about the issue but his message to Nugent would be to "keep sharpening his pencils because he needs to do more.''

Stabins argued that Nugent has spent more year after year and is prepared to spend more again next year.

"That's not where we need to be,'' Stabins said, pointing out that the other portions of county government were all spending less next year. The portion of the county budget under the County Commission also spent less this year than last year, he said.

"We've turned around and done what the taxpayers demanded,'' Stabins said, noting he expected no less of the sheriff.

According to numbers provided by deputy county administrator Larry Jennings late Wednesday, Nugent projects that by Sept. 30, the end of this budget year, he will have spent $31.6 million in 2009. If the commission grants him the money he has requested, his spending for 2009-10 would rise to $32.2 million.

The county has the sheriff's total in the tentative budget at $30.9 million.

Commissioner John Druzbick said it was smart of Nugent to begin to save dollars in his spending in the last year, yet he had plenty of questions for Nugent about his budget. He also said more work was needed in investigating other funding sources for programs like DARE and he was looking into that.

One of Commissioner Rose Rocco's questions is whether the county gave Nugent too much money last year since he could save so much. She said she wanted to see the details because the sheriff's budget was such a key part of the county's overall spending.

"We're in a very serious situation here,'' she said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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