Sheriff must hack bloated budget like every other county department
Hernando TodayThe issue: Budget cuts at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Published: May 29, 2009
Published: May 29, 2009
Our opinion: In this economy, scare tactics and gravy-train expenditures won't fly any longer.
Let the scare tactics begin.
After all, budget season is opening in Hernando County, and it's every department for itself.
Sheriff Richard Nugent made that perfectly clear - and wrongly so - during Tuesday's county commission meeting when he told commissioners that if his department takes a $4.2 million budget cut, 44 deputies will lose their jobs.
Translation: The public should fear being at the mercy of criminals.
Which, of course, is nonsense.
We don't believe for a second that 44 deputies would lose their jobs if the sheriff's budget was reduced by $4.2 million. We'd be willing to bet that all sorts of other cuts and strategic management actions like furloughs, reduced hours, salary freezes and pay cuts would be taken before anyone wearing a badge is actually laid off.
The sheriff is going to be the first one to blink on this one.
We're relieved county commissioners didn't blink in allowing Nugent to separate the sheriff's office from the county's general fund by creating a separate taxing unit on property taxpayers.
Translation: Big tax hike.
Hernando Countians can't afford a mil levy increase and simply won't stand for one in these troubling economic times. Politicians seeking re-election can bet their jobs on it.
Even though Nugent would like everyone to believe his department should be immune from cuts to ensure public safety, the sheriff's office, perhaps more than any other in county government, could use a good financial shake-down.
Keeping it part of the county's general fund budget will ensure that commissioners have a say in the S.O.'s budget, and that's the way it should be. It provides another level of accountability and holds six elected officials to answer to the taxpayers.
For far too long, the S.O. has operated with immunity from budget cuts and oversight of its massive spending increases. Even though no new deputies have been added since the 2005-06 fiscal year, Nugent's budget has ballooned. Since the 2004-05 fiscal year, when the S.O.'s budget hit $26.9 million, it's grown nearly $6 million, to $32.7 million, this fiscal year.
That's a whopping 22.5 percent increase in four years!
With no new deputies on the street in the past three years, the sheriff's budget has climbed nearly $1.2 million.
Interestingly enough, in the past four budget years, salaries and wages have increased more than $4.2 million, from $14.6 million in 2005-06 to $18.8 million this year - a massive 29 percent!
Retirement contributions also have skyrocketed more than $1 million, from about $2.4 million in 2005-06 to more than $3.4 million in 2008-09. Overall operating expenditures have also ballooned 10.6 percent.
This shows us that the bureaucracy has grown while the number of those sworn to protect and serve has been static. If Nugent put the same number of deputies on the street in 2006-07 as he has today, then there's no doubt some deep cuts can be made.
It's belt-tightening time and this will be a good test for our sitting county commissioners to streamline a bloated county government that includes the sheriff's office.
If that means fewer deputies patrolling from the sky, then so be it. If that means fewer deputies patrolling on the water, then so be it. If that means fewer deputies securing the courthouse, then so be it. If that means fewer deputies on the streets, then so be it.
We're confident deputies will be the last, not first, cuts.
Still, if that means no DARE program or Care Line or Citizens Academy or Crime Watch, the sheriff should cut them.
Hernando Countians obviously can't afford the level of law enforcement support that Nugent stockpiled in the boom years, when tax dollars were flowing like honey to the S.O. and big raises and promotions were the order of the day.
Even though Nugent's mission is different from the rest of county government, we disagree that expense cuts can't be made. It makes perfect sense to consolidate similar functions of the sheriff's department, especially information technology and human resources. Others should be sought.
The control that Nugent wants to keep over the S.O. budget seems arrogant and may soon erode many of the positive changes he has accomplished while sheriff.
The S.O. is a professional organization that has done an admirable job fighting crime and ensuring the safety of Hernando Countians. But these are tough times. Every business and household has been affected. The sheriff's office must live in the reality of this economy with the rest of Hernando County and make the necessary financial cuts while continuing to maintain the public's safety.
No one ever said it would be easy.
The sheriff and other county officials need to remember: In this protracted recession, it's only going to get more difficult. Property taxes are based on sales a year in arrears, with tax revenues for 2009-10 based on 2008 sales. This year's property values have dropped significantly more and will even more drastically affect 2010-11 budgets.
Local governments have only seen the ugly head of this economic demon revealed so far.