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Letters to the Editors

Doing right on sheriff's budget will take time

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003

It's not the first time Hernando County Commissioner Diane Rowden has been the first to question the status quo, and we hope it won't be the last.

But in this instance, she may be a little ahead of herself.

At Rowden's insistence, but with the full commission's consent, a discussion is scheduled for Tuesday morning about the possibility of creating a municipal services taxing unit, or MSTU, for the Sheriff's Office. The idea was brought up last summer when the commission, with Commissioner Chris Kingsley leading the charge, was looking for ways to avoid a $5-million shortfall and instructed Sheriff Richard Nugent to trim his spending.

Nugent obliged, but not before there was talk about about separating his budget, which accounts for about one-third of the commission's total budget. The idea of carving out a distinct MSTU for the sheriff was put on hold at that time, with the understanding that it would be brought up again this year. That is exactly what Rowden is doing now, and, regardless of one's opinion about the issue, it remains a topic worthy of more detailed discussion.

Rowden thinks that because the Sheriff's Office receives the bulk of the funding from the general revenue fund, an MSTU would make taxpayers more aware of how their money is disbursed. It also would take some of the political heat off the commission by making the sheriff directly accountable to residents for increases in his budget.

Greater accountability in the name of a better-informed public is always desirable. But there are factors at work in this situation that make the MSTU idea ill-timed and inadvisable.

Foremost among those concerns is the legality of forcing the sheriff into a special taxing unit. Commissioners in Alachua County did just that to counter the city of Gainesville's fondness for annexing adjacent neighborhoods and business districts. The Sheriff's Office sued the county, claiming it is statutorily deficient.

That legal battle could drag on for some time, and it will address several core issues of a separate MSTU that also exist here, including how to put price tags on services that are shared.

Sheriff Nugent has said that residents of incorporated Brooksville would have to have their tax bills adjusted upward to continue to receive services from his agency, as they routinely do now. In the alternative, county residents might wind up footing the bill for sheriff's deputies to respond to calls in the city.

Given the complexities and uncertainties of the the Alachua County scenario, it would be prudent for the Hernando County Commission to wait for that outcome before creating its own MSTU for the sheriff.

There is nothing inherently wrong with putting the sheriff's budget under more scrutiny; the County Commission certainly has the power to do that now. It can go over Nugent's budget line by line, just as it would other constitutional officers, such as the supervisor of elections, property appraiser, tax collector and clerk of the court. There is nothing stopping the commission from setting a cap on Nugent's budget and telling him to live within those means.

However, that is easier said than done, especially when the funding in question is earmarked for public safety, a very tangible issue that is near and dear to the hearts of every taxpayer. The political fallout from denying the sheriff money he claims he needs cannot be underestimated.

That said, the commission should not shy away from its responsibility to make the sheriff justify increases in his budget for both personnel and equipment. Commissioners who are wont to rubber stamp the sheriff's budget -- or that of any other agency within their purview -- shirk their sworn duty to the public.

We commend Rowden for continuing the discussion about the MSTU, and we encourage her colleagues to look at it with an open mind. Depending on the result of the Alachua County case, the arguments Sheriff Nugent probably will raise at Tuesday's meeting and the state's dubious economic climate, the commission may need to revisit this issue in a year or two.

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