So far, Hernando County commissioners have just said no to Sheriff Richard Nugent's labored efforts to avoid budget cuts. That means - for now - that one of the items bound for the chopping block is the sheriff's coveted drug-prevention program.
Hernando's DARE program faces elimination because the county administration has asked Nugent to make about $1 million in cuts to his 2009-10 spending plan. If the request holds, the sheriff stands to lose 16 vacant positions, 12 part-time employees, six substations and the gang prevention program, among a few other items.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Nugent said of the loss of DARE. "I think it was a positive program that impacts our youth."
In past years, Nugent wrote a check to the county with whatever money was left in his budget at the end of the year. The amount varied; last year, he returned just over $619,606 to the county's general fund.
This year, Nugent proposed keeping the money. But thus far, county officials have held fast on their demand for cuts.
Which means Nugent will probably have to shut down the DARE program he started at the Sheriff's Office in 2002.
Officially known as Drug Abuse Resistance Education, the program was conceived in 1983 by Los Angeles police Chief Darryl Gates and officer Glenn Levant in response to a number of narcotics-related crimes and a belief that uniformed officers could best tell children about the dangers of drug use.
According to DARE officials, the program "has proven so successful" that it's now taught in 75 percent of the nation's school districts and more than 40 countries around the world. The program reportedly reaches 36 million children across the world - 26 million in the United States - ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.
In Hernando, Nugent dispatches four deputies to 12 elementary schools and six private schools for a weekly 45-minute lesson with fifth-graders.
One of those deputies, Robert Patchiarotti, has been teaching DARE to children since Nugent launched the program seven years ago. Patchiarotti believes strongly in the importance of DARE.
"We need to get the kids' attention as early as possible," said Patchiarotti, a deputy since 1989. "After that, they're really not going to listen. People really don't know or understand the work we do."
Pointing to data from a 2008 study conducted by the state Florida Department of Children and Families, Nugent credited the program for a decrease in substance abuse among local middle school and high school students.
There have been decreases in the usage of alcohol (4.5 percent), cigarettes (11.8), marijuana (5.3) and inhalants (1.2) among Hernando students since 2002, according to the Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey. Of students who said they had used any illicit drugs at all, there was a decrease from 34.3 percent in 2002 to 33.4 percent in 2008.
"This is a program worth fighting for," Nugent said, "because we're talking about the future of our kids."
But nationally, DARE has endured criticism that it is ineffective, its results are hard to validate and that the program has made little difference in preventing illegal drug use. For example, in 2001, the U.S. surgeon general said DARE did not work and that "children who participate are as likely to use drugs as those who do not participate."
Local and national supporters of DARE have pushed back, saying these studies are outdated, that the program is tweaked every year for improvements and that no other course has been proven to work nearly as well.
"When you're the biggest dog in town, people come after you," said Ralph Lochridge, a spokesman for DARE America. "But we haven't seen anyone come up with a better mousetrap. A lot of places can't put officers at all three levels" of school.
Around the nation, a number of DARE programs have fallen victim to budget shortfalls. Among them: school districts and police departments in Grapevine-Colleyville, Texas; Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, Calif.; and Upper Allen Township, Pa.
Lochridge said the national DARE office does not know the specific number of programs discontinued recently, but noted that more DARE programs have been started than terminated.
"This is not unusual," Lochridge said. "Recently, more programs have been lost because of budget cuts and the severe recession we're in. Sheriffs and police departments have to had to make hard decisions."
At J.D. Floyd K-8 School in Spring Hill, principal Marvin Gordon has been holding out hope that the county can find the money to fund DARE for another year.
"It gives the students another tool out there for making good choices," Gordon said. "I would say we need to do what is best for kids."
If DARE disappears, Lisa Hammond of the Hernando County Community Anti-Drug Coalition hopes school health classes and other drug education programs can fill in the gap. But Hammond acknowledged that DARE is unique because of its relationship with the Sheriff's Office.
"The program is not only about information and education, but it's also about building relationships with law enforcement," Hammond said. "It'll be a shame for the kids, especially those who have not had that exposure to a (sheriff's deputy)."
County Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who has clashed with Nugent over the agency's spending plan, which is the largest segment of the county's general fund budget, said he also believes in the importance of DARE. But Stabins said it is Nugent's job to make decisions about which expenses to cut in his budget and which to keep in tight times.
"My role - along with the rest of the board - is to set a proper dollar figure for the overall budget," Stabins said. "It's up to the sheriff ... to figure out how to spend it. I've been acting absolutely appropriately in questioning his budget and in setting a value for taxpayers."
With limited resources and increasing demands, Nugent said, there really are no easy decisions. But all along, the sheriff has reiterated that his goal is to preserve the jobs of deputies and maintain the same standard of public service.
That means DARE might have to go.
"We were hoping it would survive," Nugent said. "But when you have to make cuts, you have to make cuts."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.
4.5% fewer students reported using alcohol.
11.8% fewer students reported using cigarettes.
5.3% fewer students reported using marijuana.
1.2% fewer students reported using inhalants.
Source: Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey