tampabay.com

Sheriff asks for funds for 109 new jobs

By THOMAS LAKE
Published June 2, 2007


One day last September, as he searched for the cash to fund 98 new jobs, Sheriff Bob White stood before the County Commission and likened his office to a Third World nation.

The commissioners were not convinced: They cut his request by 39 positions.

Now it is a new budget season, and the sheriff wants even more new jobs than he did last year - 109, to be exact - and once again his voice carries a note of distress.

It was apparent in the tone of his letter to Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand, which was released Friday along with his $94.7-million budget request. The last paragraph begins this way:

"You are probably aware that the Pasco Sheriff's Office protects the eighth largest population group in the state. You may not know, however, that the Pasco Sheriff's Office is, by far, the most economical of any agency with similar responsibilities, " referring to other law enforcement agencies in Florida.

From there, the italics roll on.

"Our 2007 law enforcement budget, for example, is less than half the average of the 2006 law enforcement budgets of the eleven other agencies."

"Our 2006 budget, in fact, would have required a 55 percent increase to be equivalent to the next lowest among the top twelve."

"This budget includes only those items that are fiscally sound, necessary and justified."

Initial reaction from commissioners suggests that White's budget request is headed for a fate similar to last year's - if not considerably more severe.

"How far can you stretch that rubber band before it snaps?" Hildebrand asked on Friday. She was talking about the county's general fund, more than half of which goes to the sheriff's budget. It will probably shrink if tax-cutters in Tallahassee get their way.

County officials have asked department heads to prepare cuts if lawmakers cut taxes. County Administrator John Gallagher has imposed a hiring freeze.

"If we cut county operations at 10 percent and keep the sheriff at where he's at this year, " Commissioner Michael Cox said, "I think he ought to consider that a home run."

Under White's budget request, spending would increase by 13.4 percent. The 109 new positions would include 24 patrol deputies and supervisors as well as a wide variety of other staff members: three forensic investigators, 10 school crossing guards, eight detention control-room operators, and an aircraft mechanic.

The bulk of the budget would go to wages, benefits and retirement. That includes 5-percent raises for most staff members.

"I think one thing we have done since 2001, " White said at a news conference Friday morning, "is show our unending and undying support for our deputies."

Many of his deputies don't feel supported. They have formed a union. They want more freedom and benefits, and they recently rejected his contract proposal by a vote of 168 to 3. Then they filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the sheriff with the state.

And at 4 p.m. Tuesday in front of the west Pasco courthouse, they plan to march and wave signs.

Even as White complains to the public about possible budget cuts, his deputies will complain to the public about White.

Times staff writer David Decamp contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.