NEW PORT RICHEY — Sheriff Chris Nocco has asked Pasco commissioners for another $1.7 million on top of his record $96.4 million budget request.
Nocco had already sought a $5.8 million increase over the current year’s budget to cover employee pay raises, increased overtime and other expenses.
In a letter to commissioners, Nocco said he needed the additional funding so his department could cancel its health insurance and switch to a self-insured program similar to the one the county implemented this year. But to do that, he needs $1.7 million in reserves to comply with state insurance regulations — and he doesn’t want his employees to cover that cost by paying higher premiums.
Nocco said the county dipped into its reserve fund last year to finance its own self-insurance plan, so commissioners should do the same for his department. “This was not an issue in doing this for the county employees and I would hope that the sheriff’s members be treated with the same regard,” he wrote.
But Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes, who oversees the budget office, said it’s not that simple. “In our first year, we saved enough money that we could implement our clinics, and in the second year we’ll be able to pay back the reserves,” Grimes said. “But I don’t think under this scenario we would ever get our money back if you pay it out of reserves.”
Grimes said Nocco made the request two weeks after submitting his 2015 budget, and he never mentioned it during the June 16 workshop with commissioners. She said the reserve fund is depleted because commissioners already borrowed over $5 million to buy property in Timber Oaks and Heritage Lakes this year.
While the majority of those borrowed funds will be paid back over the next year, it leaves the county without enough cash on hand to fund Nocco’s request and still meet its reserve obligation. The only way to fund the $1.7 million would be to raise the county’s property tax rate, Grimes said.
“They probably saw the property appraiser’s initial assessment and thought we would have a windfall,” Commissioner Ted Schrader said. “That’s not the case. But I don’t see how we can tell the sheriff no when we’re treating our employees the same way.”
He said the county might be in a better position to approve the request next year, if Nocco would be willing to wait. “We could ask them,” Grimes said.
Gail Page, the sheriff’s human resources director, said that keeping the outside insurance isn’t an option for 2015 — it’s simply too expensive. “If we don’t get that money, it would have to come out of our employees’ premiums,” she said. “Their employees didn’t have to pay higher premiums — all we’re asking for is a fair playing field.”
The agency could simply join the county’s self-insurance program, but Nocco said he doesn’t want to do that because the county charges significantly higher premiums for its family plan.
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano suggested a compromise: allowing Sheriff’s Office employees to utilize the county’s clinics when they open later this year.
Also on Tuesday commissioners heard budget requests from parks, libraries, public transportation, emergency management and facilities staff.
Commissioner Henry Wilson said he wants to restore funding to parks and libraries, which saw their budgets slashed during the recession. “I think we need to look at reestablishing library hours that were lost and possibly getting rid of parks fees,” Wilson said. “I think before we add new services, we need to get back what we lost.”