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Sheriff's Tahoe? You paid for it

Sheriff White has a ride that rivals the county's median household income. Is the expense justified?

By THOMAS LAKE
Published October 1, 2006


[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Pasco County Sheriff Bob White's 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe includes a V8 engine, leather seats, a six-disc CD changer in the dash, XM Satellite Radio and Bose speakers, among other amenities. The Tahoe that White bought in 2003 was given to Maj. Michael Page when he acquired the new one.

Politicians fire metaphors like rhetorical missiles, and Sheriff Bob White is known to pack heat. Two instances come to mind. Last month, when he asked county commissioners to supersize his budget, White compared his agency to a Third World nation. And in 2000, before his first election, he said he wanted to be a servant - not a king.

But if a king were to tour a Third World nation, he could hardly wish for a finer conveyance than the one White bought last year with taxpayer money.

It is a white Chevrolet Tahoe sport utility vehicle with four-wheel drive and a powerful V8 engine. These features alone would have made it one of the costliest sheriff's vehicles in the Tampa Bay area. White got more.

His Tahoe has a $4,145 option package that includes leather bucket seats, flared fenders and 17-inch aluminum wheels. It has a six-disc CD changer in the dash, rear-seat audio controls and premium speakers by Bose.

It even has an XM Satellite Radio receiver that promises more than 130 channels of digital entertainment. White's spokesman said the subscription lapsed after the free trial expired, meaning the Tahoe has a $279 gadget that goes unused.

The total cost to taxpayers, according to documents obtained by the Times, was $35,876. That's nearly as much as the county's annual median household income.

And instead of going through a state association that could have supplied a vehicle at a lower cost, White bought the Tahoe from a local dealer who helped finance his last campaign.

The time line goes like this:

- In 2003, after years of driving sedans, White decided that he needed a larger vehicle. He bought a new Tahoe from Castriota Chevrolet in Hudson.

- In 2004, owner Tom Castriota donated $500 to White's re-election campaign.

- In 2005, White gave Maj. Michael Page his old Tahoe - barely 2 years old, with barely 50,000 miles on it - and went shopping for a new one.

The Florida Sheriffs Association lets local sheriffs pool their buying power for lower prices on vehicles. Peggy Goff, the director of administration, said base 2005 Tahoes could have been purchased for as little as $24,399.

White went to Castriota and paid $11,000 more.

Both sides denied any connection between Castriota's donation and White's purchase.

Castriota gave the sheriff employee pricing plus a rebate on the Tahoe. He said the Florida Sheriffs Association probably couldn't have offered a better price on the well-equipped SUV that White bought.

But neither White, who refused to be interviewed for this story, nor his spokesman, Kevin Doll, could provide solid reasoning for the expensive options.

Doll said the four-wheel drive could be useful in a hurricane, but he struggled to think of times when White had used it in emergencies. He could cite no work-related use for the leather seats or the Bose sound system.

Doll did say that most of the Tahoes at Castriota came preloaded with such options. When the Times countered that White could have gone through the Florida Sheriffs Association for a more basic model, Doll said the state contract had run out by then and the new one wouldn't have been available until Oct. 1, a month later.

The deal might have taken 60 to 90 more days to finalize, and White didn't want to wait.

"He saw this one that he liked, and it had a good price on it, so he purchased it," Doll said.

When asked why White needed a new vehicle so quickly, Doll couldn't say.

"I don't know if there was any particular urgency," he said.

County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand was amazed to learn of the expenditure.

"Wow," she said. "I could understand a four-wheel vehicle for the sheriff. But four-wheel vehicles don't have to be close to $40,000."

No other elected official in Pasco County drives such an expensive taxpayer-bought vehicle at work. Tax Collector Mike Olson and Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning get by with vehicles that they bought themselves.

Property Appraiser Mike Wells and Clerk of Court Jed Pittman used county funds for new Chevrolet Suburbans, but both of them cost about $5,000 less than White's Tahoe. Wells said he needs the SUV to tour orange groves and cow pastures. Pittman said his bulk makes a mere sedan inadequate.

"I'm a big, fat guy," he said, "and I need a pretty sturdy seat."

Nor do most other nearby sheriffs ride in such style. White's vehicle cost about $6,000 more than that of Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats, about $9,000 more than that of Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, about $11,000 more than that of Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent, who drives a Ford Crown Victoria just like his deputies.

Then there is Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, whose $16,446 Chevrolet Impala cost less than half of White's Tahoe.

Around the Tampa Bay area, only one sheriff rides in greater luxury than White does: Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells, who drives a 2007 Tahoe that cost $42,249.

"I drive everywhere I go," Wells said, "so I'm going to drive something comfortable."

At first glance, White's purchase might seem to violate a general order he issued in 2003 that requires formal bids for every purchase of more than $10,000. But the order contains an exception: The sheriff may make no-bid purchases at his discretion.

Including a $36,000 Tahoe.

"I don't think most people would consider that extravagant for a sheriff," Doll said. "That's the vehicle that he believes is best for him."

Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.

[Last modified September 30, 2006, 21:46:43]


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