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Column: A hand-delivered campaign issue from Pasco Sheriff Nocco

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco placed blame on the past county administration for not properly planning a jail expansion. But his statements could emerge as a campaign issue in 2018 for two incumbent commissioners. TIMES photo
Published May 13, 2018

A crowded jail could turn into a sore spot this political season.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, inadvertently, may have delivered a campaign issue for the 2018 Pasco commission races. Except the beneficiaries are Democrats Kelly Smith and Brandi Geoit, not Nocco's fellow Republicans and supporters, Commissioner Mike Moore and Chairman Mike Wells Jr.

The incumbents, it would seem, could get caught in the political crossfire over the looming budget-busting expense of housing inmates.

In a May 1 letter to the commission, Nocco took a broad swipe at the previous county administrator, saying "the predicament we now face could have been avoided. The failure of past county administration to properly address this issue and plan accordingly for a jail expansion has now put current county leadership in a position of having to spend approximately $9.8 million annually to house inmates in other counties until the jail expansion is built.''

He also said spending all resources to curb jail crowding, instead of adding road patrol deputies, "is an unfortunate disservice to the citizens of Pasco County ... as a result of the lack of previous planning and foresight.''

The prior administration was headed by departed County Administrator Michele Baker who retired a year ago. Efforts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful.

But, her bosses included Moore and Wells.

So, why is this the administrator's fault and not her supervisors'?

Democrats took note of the same question.

"I think it is an issue of the current and past commissions' ongoing lack of doing proper planning of any kind of sort. The administration can only do what the county commissioners direct them to do,'' said Smith, of Wesley Chapel, the announced opponent of Moore.

"That's slick,'' Democratic Party Chairman Michael Ledbetter said of trying to scapegoat administrators, but not commissioners.

"They (commissioners) can't seem to make a decision,'' he said. "They don't have a good long-range plan, and it's showing up. Yes, they can write these plans, but it becomes apparent every time after they write a plan, they're making it up as they go. They're doing it on the fly.''

When I talked to Moore, he hadn't yet read Nocco's letter, but noted correctly that since his election in 2014, the commission has approved the sheriff's annual budget requests as proposed.

That included a three-year pay plan to escalate salaries for Sheriff's Office employees, plus mid-year requests in 2016 to improve the 911 communications center and last year's pitch for a firing range for deputies.

"What's come in front of me, I've approved,'' said Moore, "We made public safety the priority.''

Nocco pointed to the October 2014 facilities study by Miami consultant CGL, which suggested the county consider investing nearly $600 million in new buildings over the next two decades, including a 1,000-bed jail expansion and a new 12-courtroom criminal court complex. That report, incidentally, was delivered after Wells was elected in the primary, but before he took office. Moore won his seat a few weeks later in the general election.

The study put the jail cost at more than $100 million, but included no funding source. The consultants called the larger jail the most pressing need amid the county's space crunch and said it should be done within one to five years. The jail, it should be noted, is the commission's responsibility. The sheriff just runs it. The county must build and maintain it.

The commission kicked around the facilities master plan in a February 2015 workshop. But talks of a special taxing district, impact fees, a bond referendum and other financing options didn't generate a definitive course of action beyond the commission seeking private-sector input.

"You don't want to wait until you're out of capacity before you start to plan how you're going to build that capacity,'' Baker warned her bosses.

The issue didn't land before the full commission again until five months ago, when Nocco and his subordinates detailed the crowding, the costs to build temporary cells and the costs to transport inmates to other counties in the meantime. In response, commissioners said they would ask voters in November to consider a $128 million bond issue to expand the detention center in Land O' Lakes. It is expected to be one of four local bond referendums — for public safety, parks and libraries — on the November ballot.

Where did the prior county administration fall down?

Nocco said his department raise concerns about the needed jail expansion during meetings with administrators and at the Public Safety Coordinating Council. That 10-person group — which includes representatives of the Sheriff's Office, the judicial branch, the offices of the state attorney and public defender, a county commissioner and others — meets four times a year in sessions that sometimes last less than 20 minutes. Moore is the chairman.

So I perused the minutes from the public safety council meetings. At the May 2015 session, six months after the CGL report was received, the Sheriff's Office noted the jail's average daily population was significantly lower than in the previous three years.

In January 2016, the inmate population was 1,421 — a 107-person increase over the data from seven months earlier. Still, members of the safety council credited both the Drug Court and the Veterans Court with deterring offenders from incarceration. The jail population had remained stagnant over the previous five years, according to the minutes.

A year later, Nocco and his staff sounded the alarm because the number of people awaiting trial on felony crimes had ballooned the adult inmate population. The sheriff "noted further that the jail was one of the priorities for growth in the future and explained when they got close to 1,900 inmates, they would need to start shipping out inmates to other counties. He spoke regarding facility costs,'' according to minutes of the Feb. 20, 2017, public safety council meeting.

But here's a quirk. Because the minutes aren't circulated widely until after the Public Safety Coordinating Council members approve them at their next meeting, the rest of the commission didn't see those statements from Nocco — if they read them at all — until June 2017.

Not sure how you legitimately blame a departed administrator for these communication breakdowns. It seems like there is plenty of blame to pass around.

On other matters, the sheriff certainly hasn't been shy about taking his message directly to the media and public. And Nocco comes to the board when he feels the need, as he did in March 2016, when he pushed for operational changes at the 911 communications center.

In that instance, Nocco wanted to cut the administrator out of the equation.

"It's between us. We're the elected officials,'' Nocco told commissioners.

Then-Commissioner Ted Schrader asked if the sheriff would meet with Baker.

"No, I won't,'' Nocco said. "Because we're the elected officials, Mr. Commissioner. If we're going to speak out, we should speak publicly like this.''

That's a good strategy to follow when you need to talk about expanding the jail, too.

Reach C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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RELATED: Pasco considers public safety bond referendum.

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