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A Times Editorial

Slow down on sheriff's budget

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

At its core, segregating the Sheriff's Office expenses from the Hernando County Commission's general revenue fund is little more than a multimillion-dollar shell game.

But, unlike the con game you might encounter on a city street or along the midway, there is no risk of being swindled out of your hard-earned money. The money, or the "pea," if you will, is always there; you just have to look in the right place.

Moving the money around should not concern taxpayers. The proposal to create a Municipal Services Taxing Unit for the Sheriff's Office will not increase or decrease costs, or affect the services the office provides residents.

It will merely better define those services and break out the costs so that residents can see exactly how much of their taxes are spent for that purpose. That increases accountability and also places the burden of justifying those expenditures squarely on the shoulders of the sheriff.

However, residents should be concerned that this idea has not been thoroughly researched and debated, and that the county commissioners are rushing to implement the MTSU by July 1 because they believe it may help artificially ease their unenviable task of cutting $1.7-million from this year's problematic budget.

The Sheriff's Office accounts for one-third of the general revenue fund, which is the money collected from property tax payments. Sheriff Richard Nugent has proposed a 9 percent, or $1.8-million, increase in his budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. He has been asked by the county budget director to pare that to 4.5 percent, or about $900,000.

To accommodate either of those increases, which is the most sizable jump proposed by any of the elected constitutional officers, the County Commission is faced with the possibility of making deep cuts in other departments.

Laying off employees, cutting recreational and social programs, and delaying capital improvements are possibilities, according to the commissioners. An alternative would be to raise the property tax rate, but commissioners refuse to even discuss that option during an election year.

By creating an MTSU and forcing the sheriff to set his own millage rate, the commissioners hope to give the public a clearer picture of where their money is being spent. However, control of any increases in the MTSU rate still would rest with the commission, which has the authority to approve or reject a request for more money.

The County Commission approved a similar setup for emergency medical services last week. That idea was analyzed and debated for more than a year. That is in stark contrast to the speed with which commissioners are proceeding on the sheriff's MTSU. The subject was brought up for the first time publicly last week, and now some commissioners are looking to move forward with the plan Tuesday, and to give final approval at a required public hearing on June 25.

That provides precious little time for the commissioners and Nugent to discuss the advantages of changing the system, and for Nugent to put a price tag on specific services his agency has routinely provided for the county. For example, he will have to determine how much he should charge Brooksville for services he performs for the city Police Department, and for the people and work he provides the county's judiciary.

The MTSU proposal has merit and, based on the information available so far, it is one the commission and the sheriff should pursue. However, given the preliminary work that must be accomplished, and the importance of doing it methodically and correctly, it should be delayed until next year. There is no rush -- other than the commission's fear that, to casual observers, the sheriff's budget request makes it appear they are big spenders.

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