Tallahassee isn't the answer, Sheriff White

Published May 31, 2007

The Florida Legislature mandated a $545-million property tax increase to help fund public education and stuffed the upcoming state budget with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pork while simultaneously carping that local government spending is out of control.

The Pasco County Commission has reduced its property tax rate by 50 percent over the past five years and owners of homesteaded property pay less now in county ad valorem taxes than they did in 2002, even with increased assessments in value. Even a sales tax increase was accompanied by a 25 percent cut in the property tax levied for school construction. It's why the squawking for tax reform has been significantly quieter in Pasco than in neighboring counties.

Regardless, guess which governing body Pasco Sheriff Bob White wants to control his budget?

Yes, the county's top lawman believes legislators in Tallahassee need to have a bigger say in how county commissioners react to his annual budget requests. Specifically, White believes the Legislature should act to guarantee a minimal per-capita funding for law enforcement. That was part of his plea Tuesday as he spoke to journalists about his department's needs in advance of Friday's release of his proposed budget for the coming year.

White is right to be concerned. Not because his department is a victim of spending inequities by Pasco commissioners. The Sheriff's Office budget of $83.4-million consumes more than half of the $154-million in local property taxes in the county's general revenue budget.

White should be concerned because local governments are facing the likelihood of mandated spending freezes and/or cuts when legislators reconvene next month in a special session on property tax reform. The pie to pay for public safety, economic development, parks, libraries, and other public services is expected to stagnate or decline, and legislative assistance will not be forthcoming. State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have both professed their sympathies toward Pasco for showing years of fiscal prudence, but still facing the same fallout as other cities and counties.

Commissioners have not been unkind toward the sheriff. White lobbied successfully for substantial salary increases for his staff in the 2005 and 2006 budgets and then for increased personnel in the current spending plan. (He received 59 new staff members, though he wanted 98.) Now, consider the financial fate of state employees. They will receive no raises in the coming budget, just one-time bonuses of $1, 000 each.

The sheriff shouldn't be abdicating more authority to Tallahassee. Balancing local public needs with the available resources is the job of the Pasco County Commission.