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Pasco gun range dispute pits environmental stewardship versus officer readiness

DADE CITY — Two years ago, amid a flurry of budget vetoes, Gov. Rick Scott spared a $1 million appropriation for Pasco-Hernando State College. Legislators sought the money, at the behest of Sheriff Chris Nocco, for refurbishing and modernizing the gun range at the police academy at the college's east Pasco campus.

The state-of-the-art facility reopened in January. But less than six months later, Nocco publicly asked Pasco commissioners to develop the county's own gun range for his agency. It will require a roughly $855,000 payment to the county's utility fund for nearly 10 acres of utility-owned land abutting the trash-to-energy incinerator in Shady Hills, plus the cost of building the range, which has not been disclosed.

So, why the apparent duplication?

A dispute over ammo.

The college and the Sheriff's Office have been unable to agree on what kind of bullets can be fired at the academy's shooting range.

"Is it any wonder why our constituents always think government is wasting their money,'' said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who helped obtain the state appropriation.

Nocco wants the range to be used for full-duty ammunition — the lead bullets officers discharge while on duty. And he says legislators were led to believe that would be the case.

The college requires officers and cadets to use so-called frangible rounds that replace lead with compressed copper powder. The bullets are considered more environmentally friendly, as they separate more easily on impact, reducing the likelihood of ricochets and contamination.

The college mandated non-lead bullets when it moved its gun range from its former site in Gowers Corner to the east Pasco campus in 2003. History also could be dictating why PHSC would be gun-shy on lead bullets. The cost to the college to remediate lead contamination from the berms and ground soil at the former Gowers Corner range topped $700,000.

But environmental safeguards at the east Pasco range make the green-bullet requirement obsolete, sheriff's officials contend.

"As we worked to obtain these dollars, it was expressed to the legislators that this money would be used to upgrade a range that had been neglected for years so we can use full-duty ammunition on an environmentally safe range,'' Nocco wrote in November to the PHSC board of trustees. Nocco also made a personal appeal to the board in January, but to no avail.

The refurbished gun range is equipped with a self-contained system that traps the slug fragments in close-to-the-ground metal piping while a dust collection unit — usually only associated with indoor ranges — provides added protection by vacuuming potential airborne residue from the trap. An auger system within the tubing transfers the spent ammo to a collection barrel for eventual disposal.

"Nothing strikes the ground; nothing touches hands,'' said sheriff's Capt. Steve Hartnett, who formerly headed the agency's training section. "This is the top-of-the-line product you use to prevent contaminants.''

Which means, he and other sheriff's officials said, the system is more than capable of handling lead slugs because the spent ammunition never hits the earth.

College officials believe differently. Accommodating lead bullets would require an estimated $200,000 of additional work to alter the current storm-water drainage system at the range.

"Without making these changes, we risk being liable for any toxic pollution and associated mitigation that may be required along with potential for fines and penalties,'' Ken Burdzinski, the college's vice president for administration and finance, wrote in a Jan. 25 memo to PHSC president Timothy Beard.

The primary users of the range are the academy cadets, who receive 80 hours of firearms training as part of their six months of schooling. The Sheriff's Office does not train there because of the prohibition against lead bullets. Pasco deputies seeking firearms practice with lead bullets, to retain their Florida Department of Law Enforcement certification, either use private sites or travel to law enforcement ranges in other counties.

"We want to train with what we use,'' Nocco told Pasco commissioners in May.

He explained in a February letter to the PHSC board.

"We must train our members and other law enforcement with what they will experience if they are forced to use their firearm in the line of duty. An incredibly tense situation does not need to be exacerbated by a law enforcement officer experiencing a different recoil or point of aim for the first time. Frangible ammunition provides a noticeably different recoil and point of aim than non-frangible ammunition.''

The difference comes, he said, because lead slugs are heavier than frangible rounds.

"The sheriff does a great job, and I'm sure that what he's asking them to do is necessary for law enforcement training to be ready for duty,'' Simpson said in agreement.

Burdzinski suggested that the college and Sheriff's Office find out what type of frangible rounds is used at training centers at Tallahassee Community College, Palm Beach State College and the Lee County Sheriff's Office, "all of which train with green ammunition, to learn more about ... how the sheriff's training concerns and our concerns over the environmental and operational issue can both be addressed.''

He also said switching to lead rounds would benefit only the Sheriff's Office because the college's academic program would continue to use green ammunition.

There are other cost factors involved. Lead bullets are half the price of frangible ammunition, and the Sheriff's Office said it would save $60,000 annually by the switch. According to 2014 figures, Pasco deputies fire more than 121,000 rounds to maintain proficiency and retain FDLE annual certification. The agency spent $4,200 that year so deputies could shoot at the Dade City Rod and Gun Club for a total of 175 days, and estimated costs to travel to out-of-county law enforcement ranges in 2015 was expected to reach $26,000, plus 3,200 hours of lost personnel time.

Nocco told commissioners in May that Pasco is the only sheriff's office in the region without its own firing range.

"We should take ownership of our folks and not make them go to other counties,'' said Commissioner Mike Wells Jr.

On July 11, the Pasco commission is scheduled to consider changing the land-use designation on the utility property as the initial step toward developing its own range. Nocco said he would use inmate labor to help reduce the cost of building the facility. But, it still aggravates others.

"It's ridiculous that government can't get along for the sake of the people,'' Simpson said, "and so we're going to spend more money because of this dispute.''

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