Sheriff's tax showdown looms
By WILL VAN SANT
BROOKSVILLE -- The budget of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office has exploded over the past decade and now feasts on the lion's share of property tax revenue.
The surging growth of the sheriff's budget has been a concern of county Commissioner Diane Rowden, who on Tuesday will provide fellow board members with details on a funding alternative: separating the Sheriff's Office from the county's general fund and instead having taxpayers support the department through a municipal services taxing unit.
While Rowden initially said she would welcome a vote on creating the unit, she has reconsidered and now views Tuesday's discussion as an opportunity to explore the idea and sound out alternate ways to pay for county law enforcement.
Fellow commissioners have expressed doubts about the taxing unit, which faces stout opposition from the Sheriff's Office.
"I'm not going to fall on my sword," Rowden said, referring to the futility of an all-out effort to create a taxing unit. "I hope my fellow county commissioners will at least look at the information I will provide."
According to Rowden, a taxing unit would force the Sheriff's Office to make the case for its budget -- which stands at $20.7-million, or about 35 percent of the county budget -- directly to taxpayers. Such a move, Rowden says, would result in greater accountability and allow residents to better appreciate the needs of law enforcement.
Whatever the virtues of the idea, Rowden is convinced the current method -- which involves Sheriff Richard Nugent making his plea for budget increases to the commission every year -- is broken.
"How can we rightfully tell him that's too much money to spend?" asked Rowden. "In terms of public safety, we don't have those answers. I have never seen county commissioners challenge how much money is being spent. That's not our area of expertise; that's his area."
A crucial stumbling block to instituting the taxing unit, Rowden and other county officials say, is Alachua County Sheriff Stephen M. Oelrich's ongoing court challenge to the legality of the approach. The case, which pits the sheriff against Alachua County commissioners, is about to go to discovery, and, according to Oelrich, both sides are prepared to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Alachua is one of five counties in Florida that use a separate taxing unit to finance their sheriff's offices.
Like Nugent, who does not rule out legal action if his department is made subject to a taxing unit, Oelrich points out that state law requires that a sheriff's office budget come from the county general fund and from fines and forfeitures. Oelrich acknowledges the law does not explicitly exclude use of a taxing unit, but claims the Legislature would have included language to support the approach if it had approved.
But the heart of Oelrich's argument, and also of Nugent's, is that sheriff's offices must serve incorporated cities inside their counties, while only residents in unincorporated areas pay into the taxing unit. The problem could be sidestepped in Alachua were the city of Gainesville to opt into a taxing unit and in Hernando if Brooksville would, but neither development is likely.
"Residents of the taxing unit were paying more and more for the service that other areas were getting for free," Oelrich said, explaining what prompted his lawsuit. "I just had enough."
Nugent, who said he must respond to 2,000 calls in the city of Brooksville every year, has an additional criticism: A taxing unit amounts to a shell game with hidden costs. It's merely shifting the money vacuum from one taxpayer pocket to another, he said, while raising the prospect of litigation costs if he fought implementation in court.
Florida Sheriff's Association spokesman Tom Berlinger said his organization does not have an official position on taxing units, viewing them as matters of local interest. But there's no doubt which dog group members back in the Alachua County fight.
"I can tell you with certainty the sheriffs are supportive of Sheriff Oelrich's attempts in the case that is pending," Berlinger said.
Hernando commission Chairwoman Betty Whitehouse has said she could not envision supporting the taxing unit without a resolution to the Alachua case, a position the idea's prime backer, Rowden, says she completely understands.
Nugent will also be on hand Tuesday to present his case to commissioners and urge them that now is not the time to move on a taxing unit. There seems to be one area of agreement between himself and some elected officials.
"To me, the safe route is to wait until the (Alachua County) litigation is over," he said.
-- Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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