DADE CITY — Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker on Tuesday presented her $1.2 billion budget that takes full advantage of the county’s first boost in tax revenue since the recession.
Baker’s recommended budget includes nearly all of Sheriff Chris Nocco’s requests, including a $5.5 million increase to cover equipment, software, added overtime and pay raises for the second year in a row — without having to raise property taxes.
Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes, who oversees the budget office, said most of the new tax revenue went to fund the sheriff’s office. “We were able to fund all of our needs, the sheriff’s needs and the constitutional officers needs within the same millage rate,” Grimes said.
For fiscal 2015, Nocco will be able to offer employees a 1-percent salary adjustment for each year of service, capped at 5 percent. Nocco said the raises are critically needed to stem the exodus of veteran officers from his ranks.
Grimes said that county employees would be rewarded in the same manner, as long as the unions accept the longevity-based raises. It would cost about $4.6 million to provide comparable pay raises to all county workers.
“We really agree with the sheriff that our employees are our most important asset and we really want to take care of them,” Grimes said.
Baker’s budget does not include the $1.7 million Nocco asked for so his agency can switch from an outside health insurance provider to a self-insured plan. Grimes said the county doesn’t have money available this year in its reserve fund for the request, which came in weeks after he submitted his original budget. Pasco County made the switch last year, resulting in a savings of $950,000.
Grimes offered to meet with the sheriff’s staff throughout the summer to try to find a way to make it happen before commissioners vote on the final budget in September. “We do need to sit down, because in the long run it is the right thing to do for the sheriff,” she said.
Commissioners said they were committed to finding a solution. “I think everyone agrees self-insurance is the way to go,” Chairman Jack Mariano said. “I think the details can get worked out over time.”
Scores of deputies and supporters again packed the commission chamber to demonstrate their solidarity for the budget request for the insurance. Nocco said he was satisfied with the commissioners’ assurances.
“The good thing is we fight as one,” Nocco said. “Our commissioners are seeing how much this impacts them and their families.”
The proposed budget sets the combined fire and millage rate at $8.90 per $1,000 of property value. A new transportation millage could bring the combined rate as high as $9.30 per $1,000, depending on whether commissioners adopt a higher gas tax to pay for road construction.
The budget also includes funding to keep the 18 firefighter positions that were added by the Department of Homeland Security’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. The grant funded the positions for two years, but it expires at the mid-point of the fiscal year, Grimes said.
Fire Chief Scott Cassin said it’s critical to keep the SAFER positions, which allowed the county to add an ambulance unit to the San Antonio station and eliminate brown-outs (operating engine units with only two firefighters.)
The recommended budget adds 45 new full-time positions, including new code enforcement officers, economic development staff, and parks maintenance staff.
“We’re starting to restore funding back to our parks,” Grimes said, noting that the proposed budget includes $570,568 for parks maintenance. “This is one of the areas that suffered the most since 2008.”
The budget does not included funding to eliminate parking fees at county parks or to expand library hours to pre-recession levels. Grimes said the library staff offered three alternatives to expand hours or reopen on Mondays but those would cost anywhere from $280,000 to $450,000.
Commissioner Henry Wilson said he would not support a proposal to open only the two busiest libraries on Mondays. “I think we need to look at parks because we’re talking about quality of life,” he said. “We also need to look at libraries. If we’re going to open libraries on Mondays, we need to open all of the libraries.”
The proposed budget also:
♦ includes $259,025 for five new bus drivers to provide hourly service on Route 54, the only route that connects east and west Pasco and also connects with an express bus to downtown Tampa. The bus service currently stops along State Road 54 once every two hours.
♦ includes $125,000 for a request from Public Defender Bob Dillinger to launch a pilot program aimed at providing treatment and services to the homeless population with chronic alcoholism.