Sheriff: Budget cuts would mean layoffs, a less safe Manatee

MANATEE — Sheriff Brad Steube says if he is forced to meet the county administrator’s request for him to cut 2 percent from his budget, some employees at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office are certain to lose their jobs, and public safety will suffer.

Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker last week sent a letter to Steube asking him to cut his budget in anticipation that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will sign into law a reworking of the Florida Retirement System. The change would require governmental agencies to pay more into the program for their employees.

For the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, it amounts to $1.6 million, according to Steube. Hunzeker said the sheriff’s office will have to pay for that increase because the county already has an estimated $24 million budget gap due to a shortfall in property taxes.

Covering that increase will require Steube cutting his budget by 2 percent, Hunzeker said Monday.

Steube said Monday the request came on the heels of Hunzeker’s office projecting that the sheriff’s budget would remain at the same level as last year — $103.5 million — for fiscal year 2010-11. But the sheriff said that total already included a “staggering” 4.5 percent cut during last year’s budget discussion. Another 2 percent cut will mean severe consequences for public safety, Steube said.

The sheriff says his hopes are pinned on Crist vetoing the changes to the retirement system, saying he can get by without any more cuts. But the possibility of a 2 percent cut has him ready to take a stand when he presents his budget to county commissioners next week that crime will almost certainly rise.

“I’m saying, ‘No, we can’t do it anymore,’” Steube said.

The sheriff said his agency remains 51 deputies and 106 correction deputies short of what is needed to protect the public sufficiently, as well as ensure the safety of his employees.

“Think of what could have been done if I had 50 more deputies to work with,” he said.

Hunzeker said he does not doubt Steube’s claims that with cuts public safety could suffer, but there is no money for the county to fund the retirement changes.

“I would never second-guess the sheriff,” Hunzeker said. “It will be something that he has to take up with the county commission.”

With Steube poised to present a bleak picture for his budget, commissioners may be forced to discuss options for other sources of funding for the sheriff’s office, according to County Commissioner Ron Getman.

Getman said Monday he would entertain a request from Steube to discuss with his fellow commissioners possibly putting a referendum to voters for a property tax increase dedicated solely to public safety. The commissioner estimated that a quarter-point increase in the millage rate would cost taxpayers about $2 a month while raising millions for public safety.

“The public has made it clear to the board they don’t want to see any new taxes,” Getman said. “But it might be time to see if the public would be willing to pay a couple of dollars a month for public safety services.”

Steube said he would support a referendum for a millage increase, but he expressed hope that commissioners might — for a more immediate impact — vote for a small tax increase on their own dedicated to public safety.

“We will see when that day comes. With these cuts, I don’t see how we are going to do this. I really don’t,” Steube said. “It’s very grim.”

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