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A Times Editorial

As it stands, House budget is bad news for county


© St. Petersburg Times
published April 20, 2003

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and his allies are fond of chirping about "living within our means" under their so-called "family friendly" state budget. They have an interesting way of defining their priorities within that spending plan.

By now, any Floridian paying attention to the games being played in Tallahassee is aware that this means hammering middle-class families and the needy at every turn. Some of the more damaging blows to the public that have attracted attention range from slashing scholarship programs for state university students and squashing the truly medically needy to raiding trust funds, including taking $125-million from a fund for affordable housing.

Just as important, but gaining less notice, are the moves to shift more of the state's responsibilities onto counties, where local leaders will be forced to either raise taxes or cut other services in order to make ends meet. Some of these costs include $417-million for public schools that will have to be raised through local property taxes and $64-million for pretrial detention programs for juveniles.

There is one cost-shifting move that has the potential to endanger the safety of every Floridian. The House, in its infinite wisdom, wants to hack $32-million from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's crime lab budget.

If counties want the specialized services that the state crime lab has long provided to local law enforcement agencies, they will have to pay for them. In Citrus County, that would mean finding an additional $65,000 a year.

The Citrus Sheriff's Office sent 417 pieces of evidence to the lab in 2001 and 473 in 2002, according to Bob Blume, the Administrative Services Bureau commander. The fee proposal the Sheriff's Office is working with estimates the county would have to pay at least $160 for each piece of evidence it sends to the lab if the budget cuts are made.

The majority of the evidence deals with drug arrests, Blume explained, and the FDLE lab reports are essential to making cases in court against accused offenders. With the continued advances in the field of DNA testing and other areas, crime lab work is becoming more essential to prosecutors as they build their cases.

While one concern raised about the cost-shifting plan is that some financially strapped counties and smaller agencies might be forced to curtail the amount of testing they request, Blume was adamant that the Sheriff's Office would not go that route.

"We would never compromise any investigation," Blume told the Citrus Times, adding that the agency is confident that the County Commission, which funds the Sheriff's Office, will find the money somehow.

There is a slight chance that the House leaders could come to their collective senses and scuttle this dangerous idea. Already, Gov. Jeb Bush and Attorney General Charlie Crist have spoken out against the proposed cut.

One of the louder voices protesting the proposal belongs to our own House member, Charlie Dean. As a former sheriff, Dean is well aware of the important role the state crime lab plays in local law enforcement's efforts.

Dean spoke on the House floor against the budget cuts, raising the dire prospects of local police departments having to decide not only which cases to pursue but also whether to hire more officers or reserve those funds for lab testing.

"There are some want-tos, some maybes and some gotta-get-dones," he told the Times. "This is a gotta-get-done."

Dean is optimistic that the cuts will be restored during the horse trading that occurs in the various House and Senate committees. Most troubling, however, is that someone in a position of leadership actually thought this was a good idea.

While cuts like this remain on the table, the House members shamelessly have stuffed the state budget with more than $400-million in pet projects for their districts. These so-called turkeys, Byrd and his buddies proclaim, are more important than keeping sick people alive, helping middle-class kids earn college educations or, yes, fighting crime.

Byrd has said that he is "especially proud" of this budget and invites the public to e-mail him at SpeakerByrd@MyFloridaHouse.com. Floridians who care about public safety and maintaining their quality of life should take him up on this offer.

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