By Kyle LoJacono
When Chris Nocco became the Pasco sheriff in May he stressed a desire to stamp out illegal prescription drug use within the county.
Nocco took his fight to the county commission, asking for $1.6 million in next year’s budget to hire 23 new employees, including 12 to create two new squads to battle prescription drug abuse and eight nurses for the Land O’ Lake Detention Center to help with inmate drug issues.
The remaining three new staffers would be analysts for a new program Nocco calls intelligence-led policing.
“It’s a whole new way of looking at police work,” Nocco said of the new program. “It’ll be a team that works to find potential problem areas so we can concentrate our efforts in those areas. That way we are making the best use of our resources.”
Nocco’s request comes less than a month after the Florida Medical Examiners Commission revealed that the Pasco/Pinellas area led the state in deaths caused by prescription drugs.
Of the 2,710 deaths attributed to prescription drug abuse in 2010, 750 were from Pasco/Pinellas, or about 28 percent of the total fatalities. The examiners commission does not separate the deaths between the two Tampa Bay area counties.
Hillsborough County also had a high number of prescription drug deaths at 400. Hillsborough has 1.2 million residents, according to U.S. Census data, just 200,000 fewer than the 1.4 million people combined in Pasco and Pinellas.
Pasco/Pinellas also led the state in deaths related to the six most lethal prescription drugs, which include alprazolam or Xanax, diazepam or Valium, hydrocodone or Vicodin, methadone, morphine and oxycodone, according to the examiners commission’s report.
Nocco said the new employees are needed because Pasco is “in a war right now with prescription pills. We needed something to attack this war.”
Nocco received support at the commissioners meeting from state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has been outspoken in his support of stepping up the fight against prescription drug use. He has sponsored anti-pill mill laws in the state Legislature.
“We’ve taken baby steps in Tallahassee,” Fasano said. “But you can take a giant leap right now in approving what he’s requesting.”
The commissioners agreed to explore giving Nocco the increase to help fight that war.
“We probably all know somebody who has been affected by these drugs,” said Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand.
However, Commissioner Ted Schrader pointed out that the new workers’ salaries would be “funded on the back of a lot of the employees.”
The arguments for and against adding new workers to the Pasco Sheriff’s Office have been a constant during the last year. Bob White, who was Nocco’s predecessor before he retired in April, asked for a $4 million increase in the current budget for the sheriff’s office to in part hire 28 new deputies.
White fought for months before eventually settling on an additional $945,000 to pay for increasing benefits costs. No new workers were hired.
Nocco jokingly said he was “looking for an olive branch” on his way to the commissioners meeting.
“There may have been contention in the past, but I hope to start a new day,” Nocco said.
Nocco said the new workers he is requesting for intelligence-led policing differs from what White wanted. He said the new team would be like a “special operations group.” White’s request was meant to simply beef up the number of deputies in areas of west Pasco.
Nocco is asking for the increase to come from the $4.7 million his office saved from the current fiscal budget. The reductions came mainly because the Legislature passed a new requirement that all state workers must contribute 3 percent of their salaries to their pension plans.
Commissioners are scheduled to have two more public meetings before voting on the budget on Sept. 20, including if they will officially agree to Nocco’s request. The new budget year begins Oct. 1.