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BUDGET TENSIONS LEAD TO SPAT

A compromise adds $350,000 in the coming year to the sheriff's budget, but the bickering continues.

A day after Sheriff Richard Nugent and County Commissioner Jeff Stabins dueled over the agency's budget, the verbal bullets continued to fly Friday.

Calling the $31.9 million budget tentatively approved by the board Thursday night "disappointing, at best,'' Nugent said, "I still have a feeling like I had my pocket picked by Commissioner Stabins.''

"Those are the taxpayers' pockets, not his pockets,'' Stabins replied.

The heated rhetoric between the two, which at one point Thursday forced the board chairman to step in as referee, was another example of the high emotions that have consumed officials all summer as they have wrestled with drastic budget cuts brought on by lower tax revenues and a stalled economy.

Commissioners so far have slashed money from every department, launched an early-leave program for employees, renegotiated the contract with the jail operator, cut public transit, ordered 10-day furloughs for non-union employees and threatened possible layoffs for union workers.

On Thursday, at the first of two budget public hearings, it was Nugent's turn to defend his spending plan, which is by far the largest single segment of the county's general fund budget.

The sheriff initially sought $33 million, which is equal to the current year's amount plus the addition of the emergency management function he took over from the county in January.

At first, the county administration sought a $4.2 million cut, which would have dropped spending to 2006 levels consistent with county departments. The county administration later amended the cut to $2 million.

Nugent wanted to keep $1.3 million that he has been able to save this year rather than turn it back to the county. That would save traffic officers, the DARE anti-drug program, aviation and marine officers and community policing and crime prevention programs, he said.

Stabins countered that the commission doesn't make the decisions on where the sheriff spends his money. He said it was Nugent who was choosing to target popular programs and deputies.

Stabins proposed a budget equal to what Nugent expects to spend this year, or $31.6 million.

Nugent said it would be foolhardy to force him to have a budget that would cut needed programs such as traffic enforcement deputies. Stabins fired back that Nugent should be respectful and "not call me foolhardy.''

"I said the idea is foolhardy,'' Nugent responded.

"It's my idea,'' Stabins said.

"Then you own the title,'' the sheriff replied.

"Gentlemen, I will not have it,'' commission Chairman Dave Russell said, banging his gavel. "We will conduct this meeting in a civil fashion.''

Commissioner John Druzbick asked why, if he was able to run those programs this year, Nugent would need to drop them next year if he had the same amount of money.

Nugent and his staff cited cost increases outside of their control, such as insurance, mandated retirement increases and workers' compensation increases.

After a break, Russell suggested a compromise that takes Nugent's current year's spending and adds $350,000 to offset the additional expenses.

The sheriff agreed with that, and commissioners voted unanimously to set that amount as the agency's 2010 tentative budget.

On Friday, however, emotions were still running high. Nugent called Stabins' statement that the sheriff is getting a budget increase "an out-and-out, I don't know what, a fabrication of the truth.''

He maintains that the original budget he proposed was the same as the current year, plus the cost of the emergency management functions he had absorbed.

The tentative budget approved Thursday, he said, is lower than that figure. In fact, the compromise would eliminate the DARE program, a vice detective position and a crime prevention program, the sheriff said.

Stabins argues that a budget plan is one thing, actual spending is another. The commission, he said, gave Nugent more money for next year than he spent this year.

Nugent was unimpressed with the praise Stabins offered for the way he runs the Sheriff's Office.

"I don't need him blowing smoke up my skirt about what a great job I've done,'' he said.

Nugent also predicted that the issue might not be over. He said he had heard from a number of residents unhappy that the board didn't let him keep what he had saved in his current budget. He expected those people may make their feelings known in the coming days.

Stabins said he, too, is continuing to look for savings in the sheriff's budget. He hopes to replace the $500,000 in payroll reductions in the county's tentative budget that will mean furloughs and possible layoffs.

In other budget matters:

Commissioners held fast to their plan to have Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams trim another $40,000 from her budget. She repeated an earlier pitch to keep the funding because so much of what her office does is mandated by law. She asked commissioners which of those required activities she should cut.

Russell suggested that her office become more proactive in recruiting poll workers who were willing to do the job without collecting the $90 to $110 daily fee. Williams said she was required to pay the workers. Russell said the workers could opt out of collecting the poll worker pay.

"We'll help you with that,'' he said, noting that the county could send out public service announcements seeking volunteers.

Poll worker pay accounts for $129,000 of the supervisor's budget. Williams said she'd be happy to work with volunteers if enough could be found.

The commission also cut out more than $20,000 in expenses to be members of the Florida Association of Counties and $16,000 from mosquito control expenses.

More cuts may come by the final budget hearing on Sept. 24.

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

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