BROOKSVILLE — In January, the Hernando County Sheriff’s chief deputy, Mike Maurer, stood before county commissioners and asked them to give the Sheriff’s Office an additional $57,660 to pay for a new court bailiff.
Commissioner Steve Champion balked, saying the county was heading for a fiscal emergency.
Funding the position was the commission’s job, Maurer said. "It’s statutorily required.''
"Can’t you find a way to cut $57,000?'' Champion asked. "We’re going to have to find a way to cut millions in order to make this budget work.''
In that same month, according to his own records, Sheriff Al Nienhuis had 38 empty jobs on his total employee roster of 583. The county had funded the positions for him, but they were not filled. Twenty-two of them were for sworn deputies.
The open positions have been questioned by one of Nienhuis’ former top deputies, James Terry, who is challenging his former boss in next year’s election.
Strength reports issued by the Sheriff’s Office indicate that for the past year, it has had as many as 41 open positions and never fewer than 31.
Of the 11 reports reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times — roughly one per month since the fiscal year started last October — the average number of open deputy positions was nearly 22 and number of non-sworn open positions was about 12.
Sheriff’s officials say they budget new sworn positions at approximately $57,000 each, so those vacancies would represent between $1 million and $2 million in unspent funds.
That number becomes critically important as the county considers increasing its general fund property tax rate by 1 mill to help fill a $10 million budget hole. The county’s final budget hearing is on Tuesday.
The sheriff’s budget comprises approximately half of the general fund expenses. Nienhuis is asking for about $2.6 million more from the general fund than he got last year.
This year isn’t an unusual one for unfilled jobs in the sheriff’s spending plan.
"He’s always about 30 people short,'' said George Zoettlein, Hernando County’s long-time budget director who retired several months ago. By Florida law, he noted, the sheriff is supposed to return unspent money at the end of each budget year, and an expected amount was always built into Zoettlein’s tentative budget.
The amount for this year is not known. County budget director Stephanie Russ said she expected an “average amount,” but didn’t give a figure. Last year, it was several hundred thousand dollars.
In responding to questions from the Tampa Bay Times last week — two weeks before the fiscal year ends — Nienhuis said only that "you can’t budget for unspent funds.''
Reports on the vacancies were requested by Terry several months ago. It was Terry who in 2017 revealed that Nienhuis intentionally did not report income his office received from housing federal inmates in the county jail.
County commissioners ordered a full accounting of the income — $2.2 million — which the sheriff now includes in his budget submissions.
Terry doesn’t suggest that the sheriff doesn’t need the open positions. But he is critical of the lack of transparency in Nienhuis’ budget request, as he asks for more funding while the county struggles to cut expenses.
"It’s a pattern of the same behavior,'' Terry said. "He’s not a team player.''
“Many positions showing ‘operationally’ as vacant are being filled by temporary employees using budget dollars,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Denise Moloney, specifically for positions such as nurses, clerks, dispatchers and public-service positions. "We also pay part-time employees from those funds.'’
However, most of the open positions were for sworn deputies, Terry said, and temporary workers would not be hired.
The staffing reports reflect budgeted positions from several funding sources and not just the general fund, Moloney said. And open deputy positions sometimes are filled with public service officers, who can assist deputies, using money from the unfilled jobs.
The unspent position funds also are used to buy back unused staff leave to reduce future expenses, as well as paying for capital expenses that sheriff’s officials say have been underfunded by $1.5 to $2 million each year.
"Each year as our fiscal year comes to a close and excess funds become available, we use some of the excess funds to purchase those underfunded capital needs,'' Moloney said.
During last week’s first county budget hearing, Commissioner John Allocco defended the sheriff’s budget. His department and other constitutional officers have taken the hit in the past, Allocco said, while county departments continued to grow.
Terry’s concerns about the open positions has made the rounds of social media, it was not raised during the budget hearing.
Nienhuis brought forward a streamlined spending plan, Allocco said.
With 86 percent of his budget in personnel, the sheriff would have to cut about 27 deputies to reduce his budget by $2.5 million, Allocco said. He called criticism of the sheriff’s spending "a personal vendetta.''
Commissioner John Mitten said he didn’t want to second-guess what Nienhuis needs, because he isn’t the person responsible for protecting the county.
But Champion said the commission was responsible for making sure taxpayers were "not being taken advantage of.'' Commissioners Champion and Wayne Dukes have voted against the proposed county budget and asked for spending reductions from the sheriff.
The county administrator already trimmed $1.3 million from the commission’s budget, Dukes pointed out, cutting more than two dozen staff positions and consolidating information technology services.
"We’re a team here,'' Dukes said, turning to the audience. "I think we can fix this without putting it all on you folk.''
Nienhuis could cut the cost of the traffic division since the Florida Highway Patrol is largely responsible for traffic enforcement, Champion said after the meeting. Cutting upper-level management might also be a savings for him.
"Do they really need all that leadership? We want deputies on the roads,'' Champion said. "He’s not a conservative. This guy wants more and more and more.''
Nienhuis pointed to $3 million in mandated budget increases driving his budget request, including higher liability costs, workers compensation increases, union contract-approved pay raises, health insurance, utilities and retirement payment increases.
He said he would turn over $188,000 in federal reimbursements for money spent during Hurricane Irma in 2017. And he offered to delay until December his draw on the general fund to help the county’s cash flow.
"I’m trying to be a team player here, but when it comes my my people, I’m going to have to speak up,'' Nienhuis said. "Cutting 2 to 3 million dollars out of my budget, that’s just not feasible ... We’re talking about deadly serious business here.''
He talked about his capital needs and the difficulty of the work his people perform. Twice during the meeting, he told about a supervisor whose cruiser was disabled, and he had to finish his shift in an unmarked vehicle.
Nienhuis might want to use some of his unused personnel money to buy new cars, Terry said, adding that citizens would understand. What they won’t understand, he added, is why Nienhuis isn’t willing to help with the budget crisis when he is not spending the money he was given for hiring deputies.
Neinhuis stands by his spending plan, pointing out that his office has saved the county millions of dollars in the way it has run the jail, brings revenue in by housing outside inmates, has good audits every year and does the difficult and important job at a lower cost than comparable agencies.
"Therefore, Hernando County residents can rest assured that Hernando County Sheriff’s Office commanders work hard at providing exceptional law enforcement service, at a cost that is amazingly low to local taxpayers,” Nienhuis said.
He took issue with Terry’s criticism of his willingness to work with the county.
“Facts are important and this budget, as well as the last eight budgets that I have submitted, are proof positive that I am a team player,'' Nienhuis told the Times. He cited as examples: "taking on the responsibilities of the animal enforcement officers, maintaining the responsibility of the Hernando County Detention Center — while keeping costs low and looking for creative revenue sources — and taking on the responsibility of providing law enforcement services for the city of Brooksville.”