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Sheriff wins partial victory on budget; fewer cutbacks, no tax increase

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — In a lengthy afternoon session of the Indian River County budget workshop, Sheriff Deryl Loar presuaded the Board of County Commissioners to cut his $43.8 million budget request by only half the $1.69 million that had been proposed — allowing him to fill 10 positions at the Indian River County Correctional Facility that budget cutters had proposed be eliminated.

At the same time, the County Commission’s reversal of cuts that County Administrator Joe Baird had proposed in the Sheriff’s Department budget will not lead to increases in the property tax rate, Baird said. Creative accounting enabled the commission to put $922,000 back into the Sheriff’s Department budget without increasing the millage rate. The showdown over the Sheriff’s Department budget on Thursday centered on personnel, since 85 percent of the budget goes for salaries, benefits and payroll expenses for 499 employees. The department currently has 40 unfilled positions and Loar was fighting for money to fill those slots, including 20 the correctional facility.

“If you cut those 20 people, we would be in a terrible position,” Loar said, noting that he has no control over the size of the prison population.

Loar began his presentation by playing a 7-minute video illustrating all the divisions of the Sheriff’s Office and what the deputies and staffers do to serve the county. Included in the video were statistics for 2008 such as 206 deputies employed, 6,529 persons booked into the jail, 735 calls for burglaries, and 28,192 hours worked by inmates. After the video, he made his case for preserving the requested budget and not taking the $1.69 million in proposed cuts.

“We don’t want a raise, we want to keep what we’ve got and to make progress,” Loar said. “Our unemployment is 14 percent and when unemployment goes up, crime goes up. When times are good, crime goes down.”

Loar reminded commissioners that every foreclosure and eviction is processed through the Sheriff’s office, and that every 911 calll — whether for a disturbance, crime, fire or medical service — goes through the call center under the pervue of the Sheriff.

“At the end of the day, if you don’t have proper law enforcement, what kind of civilization do you have?” Loar rhetorically asked.

At the actual end of the day on Thursday, Loar and his comptroller, Harry Hall, came away with $922,000 more than County Administrator Joe Baird had recommended. About $600,000 will allow Loar to fill up to 10 critical positions at the Correctional Facility. That money will come out of general fund reserves.

Commissioner Peter O’Bryan proposed splitting the difference with the Sheriff on staffing for the jail. O’Bryan — and later Commissioner Gary Wheeler — also promised that if numbers in the correctional facility get out of control over the course of the year, they would give Loar additional funds to add deputies.

“If we accept your budget, we’ll have to raise the millage rate or dig into the general fund reserve. Can we fund 10 of the positions?” O’Bryan asked.

Commissioners also asked Loar to look at ways to consolidate payroll and purchasing services with the county to eliminate redundancy and increase efficiency and come back to them with some suggestions on how this might be done.

Another $80,000 in revenue from the 911 surcharge collected on telephone bills will enable the Sheriff to fill two open 911 call-taker positions. The balance of $242,000 came in the form of debt forgiveness on a 4-year-old loan from the county enabling the Sheriff’s Department to invest in a new computer system. The county canceled out the final installment on the loan in an effort to help Loar balance the budget.

But Loar and Hall said the department will still begin the fiscal year underfunded. “We’ll have to leave 23 positions vacant just to make due with the funding level,” Hall said. “My reaction is that I have to go back to the office and absorb what happened and figure out what impact this is going to have on operations for next year.”

The Sheriff’s Office is also waiting to hear the status of $1.6 million in grant applications it has submitted, which would pay for safety equipment, software systems and a School Resource Officer for the new Storm Grove Elementary School.

Chairman Wesley Davis seemed pleased that the Sheriff and commissioners could arrive at a compromise that would not raise the millage rate.

“I don’t want to put you in a position to run an agency with your hands tied and then to hold you accountable,” Davis said.

Commissioners wrapped up the entire budget just before 5 p.m. after nearly six hours of meetings, so sessions on Friday will not be needed. They will convene, however, to accept public comment in case any citizens intended to speak on department or fund items that were to be considered on Friday.

The maximum millage rates were set at:

General Fund 3.0892

Municipal Special Taxing Unit 1.0774

Emergency Services District 1.7148

Land Acquisition Bond .0725

Land Acquisition Bond 2004 .3154

The numbers above would appear on residents’ property tax bill in addition to taxes charged by the School District, municipal taxes and any other special taxing district such as the hospital, Florida Inland Navigation District and St. John’s River Water Management District.

The county is down 39 positions this year — approximately 160 positions down from its all time high — which amounts to a 16 percent reduction over the past three years. This reflects the $9.9 million anticipated reduction in property taxes, combined with reduced sales tax revenue and state cost-sharing funds, a 40 percent decrease in building permits and a 40 percent in impact fees paid by developers on new construction.

Also on the agenda were the budget for the other consitutional officers, the Solid Waste Disposal District outside service agencies and state agencies. Other than a few exceptions, most of these took cuts across the board to collectively meet the Commissioners’ goal of not raising taxes in the coming year.

The first public hearing on the budget will be on Sept. 9.

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