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Pasco commissioners balk at $9 million budget increase for Clerk of Court

Commissioners get first look at budget for 2021-22, new initiatives and budgets of the constitutional officers
Pasco County Historic Courthouse in Dade City
Pasco County Historic Courthouse in Dade City [ Times (2006) ]
Published Jun. 8, 2021|Updated Jun. 8, 2021

DADE CITY — Pasco County commissioners got their first detailed look at the county’s proposed 2021-22 spending plan on Tuesday and the $24.8 million in new revenue they could receive if estimates of increased property values hold true.

Early calculations divvy that funding up for numerous new staff positions, county projects that include fire stations and public works improvements, and pay raises for county staff.

Another budget time tradition is the debate over where significant investments should be made. County budget director Robert Goehrig said that most of $9 million that Pasco County Clerk of Courts Nikki Alvarez-Sowles has requested as a budget increase should not be a county responsibility.

On the other hand, Sheriff Chris Nocco built his agency’s budget based on an expected tax revenue increase of under $9 million. But since recent tradition has been to give the sheriff 50 percent of new tax revenue each year, his agency’s share of new money would instead be $12.4 million. He is requesting a total budget of $158.6 million.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey asked whether that windfall for the sheriff’s office was needed. County administrator Dan Biles said the arrangement has worked in recent years. Even with the extra funding, Biles said, it is not as if Nocco can get caught up with his needs. Biles also noted that other constitutional officers were asking for larger percentage increases to their budgets than the sheriff’s request.

Starkey said she would like to see more deputies. Biles said that the funds would pay for that, but also allow for new staff the sheriff will need when the jail expansion is completed.

Alvarez-Sowles submitted the budget for her office as required a month ago and has been talking with Biles and commissioners about her needs. In her budget request cover letter, she explained that her request is $13.3 million, and she requires an additional $8.99 million.

Nichole “Nikki’’ Alvarez-Sowles, Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller.
Nichole “Nikki’’ Alvarez-Sowles, Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller.

“The support for this increase is the result of a thorough re-examination of Florida law that prescribes how clerks’ offices in non-charter counties are to be funded,” Sowles wrote.

In the past, she said, “the clerk’s office did not ask the county to sufficiently fund it in accordance with long-established provisions in Florida laws. ... Since 2010, Pasco’s population increased by 19 percent and the county increased staffing by 39 percent to provide additional services. In that same time frame, the Clerk’s Office cut 11 percent of its positions due to funding shortages.”

As Goehrig detailed where Alvarez-Sowles planned to spend her budget funds, including $1.2 million for court-related technology, he said that the expense didn’t make the cut for special projects. Of the $7.38 million Sowles sought for court-related local requirements, Goehrig said, “We don’t feel that’s an appropriate expense for the county.”

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Alvarez-Sowles said she was just learning this decision as the county commission was, and she repeated a request she had made in writing to meet with Biles and county attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder, to further discuss what Florida requires counties to fund.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said it was important to have the discussion to keep a conflict between two attorneys from escalating to something else.

“It’s good to have a dialog,” she said. “I hope we can come to some kind of agreement.”

Goehrig also detailed where the county needs to spend its expected new dollars, including beefing up its reserve fund, bringing two new fire stations online, $600,000 for employee retirement expenses, obligations for economic development incentives, increases for the medical examiner’s office and increasing costs for Medicaid.

New capital investments include a new central facilities management building, a new road to the fire training facility site in Land O’Lakes and dredging permitting and design. The proposal also includes new hires in various departments and a $3 million allocation for 4 percent pay raises for firefighters and other county staff.

The County Commission will consider a proposed budget and tax rate next month and spending plans and tax rates would come for a final approval after public hearings in September.


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