BROOKSVILLE — The Brooksville Police Department will disband, and the city's 8,000 residents will have the Hernando County Sheriff's Office protecting their safety and their property.
The Brooksville City Council voted 4-1 Monday evening in a special meeting to contract with Sheriff Al Nienhuis to provide law enforcement services, a move city officials said could save them $1.7 million annually. The 10-year agreement will go into effect on June 1.
The vote was likely the most difficult one he has made in more than 20 years on the council, said council member Joe Bernardini. The matter has divided Brooksville residents for months, since last summer's painful budgeting process revealed the results of too many years of the city spending more money than it brought in.
After the vote, supporting council members said they struck a good deal with the sheriff for coverage, costs and the amount they will receive for their assets. Plus, nearly all of their two dozen officers and staff will have new jobs in the region.
Freeing up their tight budget will allow Brooksville to prosper, they said, and to focus on economic development that has not been possible before. Some residents, including those in the Southern Hills neighborhood, had argued that those in the city were double-taxed for police services by the county and city, discouraging residents and businesses from moving to Brooksville.
Councilwoman Natalie Kahler bucked the idea to the end, casting the sole no vote. Law enforcement coverage will be less than residents expect, she said, and business people have warned her they will flee the city. She also thought the sheriff didn't pay the city enough for police vehicles and weapons. And while economic development was a key goal, she said, safety was more important.
The sheriff has promised he'll assign two deputies per shift to the city under the contract. The Brooksville Police Department has four officers on duty per shift.
The police department debate dragged on for months, and Monday's council chamber was not as full as during earlier discussions. Some residents spoke in favor of cutting the department for financial reasons, while others said they didn't want to lose Brooksville's small-town flavor.
"This is a difficult situation we're involved in. It's not easy,'' Nienhuis said. He praised city officials for what he thought were good compromises between the agencies.
Sheriff's vehicles operating in the city will be marked with "Brooksville,'' he said, and he plans to lease the police department offices. District 1 deputies will move there, creating a constant flow of officers in and out of Brooksville.
Kahler garnered promises from the sheriff that the city's officers will not lose their pensions, and that the deputy attending future council meetings will be able to answer their questions. She also clarified how the city will enforce non-criminal code violations.
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Brooksville will pay the Sheriff's Office $967,624 in the first full fiscal year, which begins October 1.
Backed out of that fee will be credits for leasing the police department building and for the equipment now owned by Brooksville Police Department.
The contract allows increases of up to 3 percent in the first three years and up to 5 percent in the years that follow. The fee is estimated at $1,026,552 by fiscal year 2020-21.
After the vote, council members reflected on the tumultuous discussions about the police department, the need to make good decisions with the money they saved and frustration over misinformation about the issue that circulated on social media.
"I think we've done what we had to do,'' said council member Robert Battista.
"It took us years to get to this point," said Mayor Betty Erhard. "I feel we made the best decisions we could for this city.''
Mike Maurer, chief deputy to Nienhuis, told the group: "I want to assure you, we are proud to be able to provide this service to the city ... We won't let you down, and we look forward to serving you.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.