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SHERIFF'S SPENDING IS STABINS' BUSINESS

A long, long time ago, in a college political science class, I learned about a time even longer ago, before the advent of institutions like the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, when humans lived in a "state of nature.''

Everyone was at war with everyone else, and life, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.''

So, yes, keeping peace is the bedrock duty of government, the one thing it has to do before it or we can do anything else. And as protective agencies go, Sheriff Richard Nugent's department is a darn good one, a pride of the community, even.

But I'm not sure I want to say that, or Nugent might accuse me of "blowing smoke up his skirt.''

I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that, just maybe, in these lean times, the Sheriff's Office shouldn't be getting more tax money next year than it spent this year. Then I'd be "foolhardy.''

Because even as it stands now, Nugent's budget is "disappointing at best,'' and he feels as if he's had his "pocket picked.''

He said all these things to the only county commissioner who dared to challenge his budget last week, Jeff Stabins.

Their spat may resume at the final budget hearing next Thursday. Stabins has asked the Sheriff's Office for more details about its spending, and Nugent plans to once again request more money.

It's not like the office will receive more than the $33 million budgeted for the current year, he says. It's that amount, minus the $1.4 million he saved, mostly by not filling open positions. Add $350,000 the commission chipped in last week to cover additional costs, and you get a total of $31.9 million.

Even then, Nugent said, he will have to eliminate the DARE antidrug program, which will bring the total number of deputy positions cut to 16.

But, because of the open positions, Nugent won't have to lay off any deputies. His workers are also safe, so far, from the additional layoffs or furloughs likely to hit other county workers.

And, according to Stabins, with the size of Nugent's workforce, he could probably trim a few nonessential employees and save DARE.

"He's got a vast empire over there,'' Stabins said.

Maybe there's some grandstanding going on here, but Stabins has the right and duty to do what he's doing. Because as important as the Sheriff's Office is, it's not so important that we can't ask about a budget that will consume about a third of the county's general fund revenue and that hasn't felt the pain of cuts like many other county offices.

The first ones to get nailed, it seems, are the ones that bring people together to do constructive stuff, which happens too seldom in this county.

The recreation budget, for example, has dropped from $781,045 in the 2008 budget to $597,745 in the coming year. That means reducing the number of full-time workers from 21 to nine and dumping Camp Funshine, which working families have come to depend upon to occupy their kids during the summer.

Maybe it's a cliche to say that a little bit of money spent on programs like these saves a lot of money on law enforcement later on. But you do have to wonder what these kids will be doing next summer, and whether it will be wholesome or "brutish,'' and whether it is more likely to keep them out of trouble or get them into it.

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