Demands from sheriff, other departments, could raise taxes

Pasco County is losing deputies and command staff at an alarming rate, Sheriff Chris Nocco said. It’s a crime he says can be solved only one way: more money.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco already commands more than half of the county’s taxpayer dollars, but he’s looking for more.  (Michael Hinman/Staff Photo)

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco already commands more than half of the county’s taxpayer dollars, but he’s looking for more.
(Michael Hinman/Staff Photo)

About $6 million more, to be exact, bringing the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office closer than ever before to that $100 million budget threshold.

The Pasco County Commission, however, might not be ready to surrender those dollars just yet. But Nocco believes commissioners can’t wait any longer to get a handle on making salaries more competitive in his department with surrounding counties.

“I got two more letters of resignation today,” Nocco told commissioners in a meeting last week. “It is heartbreaking when you have people leaving, and they say it’s about the money. I know it’s a tough situation.”

Salary increases alone would require an additional $2.6 million in funding, and that’s money the county doesn’t really have — unless it raises taxes. But commissioners say they have other departments also expressing a legitimate need for more money.

“I know it’s expensive for you to train your deputies and have them leave. It is very frustrating to see that happen,” Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. “But we have increased demand on our staff with development picking up, and it’s hard for us. We have to go out there in the market and compete with the private sector.”

Yet, it’s not new hires the sheriff’s office is watching depart, but instead people with experience, Nocco said.

“We are not losing the one- or two-year person to Pinellas, we’re losing people with six to seven years experience,” he said.

That may be enough for Starkey and other commissioners to warm up to the idea that a property tax increase may be needed to get everything paid for.

“I am for having a better-funded county government,” she said. “Local government is not the same as our federal government, where I think there is a lot of waste. We have no hidden money, we have no extra money. We are all scraping by barely.”

The amount of taxes collected equates to about $420 per resident, which ranks Pasco above just 12 other counties, according to one study cited by Starkey.

“Our libraries, our parks, the quality of life, all at $420 per person,” she said. “It is pretty darn tough to have a premier county at that kind of level of taxes.”

Commissioner Henry Wilson agreed.

“In 2010, when I ran for the first time, I said the millage rate was too low to sustain us, and I still agree to this day that the millage rate is too low,” he said. “I would rather the sheriff’s office be 55 percent of our budget than the tax collector or the supervisor of elections. Our No. 1 goal is public safety.”

All of that has created tremendous burdens on county employees from across various departments, burdens that many are looking to get lifted this budget cycle. But it could be difficult to accommodate everyone’s requests.

“We want to continue to support public safety, but a lot of our other departments have suffered because of the financial constraints that we have been under,” Commissioner Ted Schrader said. “The economy seems to be recovering … so we’re trying to facilitate that so that we can add tax base and continue to provide that funding.”

Only part of the money Nocco seeks would go to pay raises. The sheriff also wants to earmark $333,000 to overtime, and another $300,000 for maintenance on the department’s helicopter, and to purchase a $94,000 night-vision infrared camera.

Nocco has worked to lower costs in his department, primarily through privatization. And he said he’ll continue to look for ways to reduce costs as he moves forward as well.

“It’s hard to compete,” Nocco said. “We are not putting milk, bread and potatoes on the table for our families. When people are leaving to go to Pinellas, they are leaving strictly because of pay.”

Commissioners could see a first draft budget for the next fiscal year in July.

Published June 25, 2014

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