Sheriff says budget cuts mean back to basics
Sheriff Deryl Loar wanted a budget bigger by more than $400,000 for next year, but is likely to walk away with about $1.9 million less.
The sheriff asserted that cuts will have to come from services and not buying any big ticket items – a move that’s likely to stir more tension between him and County Commissioners, some of whom see the sheriff as largely having escaped cuts during the difficult past several years.
“They have put me in a position where there is going to be a reduction in services, but we will get the job done,” Loar said. “It is going to be without some of the frills, it is going to be basic, but that is what they want.”
Budget Director Jason Brown said he “found it surprising” that the Sheriff would initially seek a budget increase when the county had put the word out that it wanted cuts of up to 10 percent in light of declining revenue projections.
By comparison, St. Lucie County cut 24 officers from its sheriff’s budget for next year.
While Loar is resigned to working with a smaller budget, he and Commissioners disagree on who should control the purse strings. Loar wants to move money as he sees fit – without prior approval – and commissioners want more details and more public discussion.
Loar said the Commission allowed previous administrations free rein. Now in tighter budgetary times, the county wants more transparency in the budget, though it does appear the Sheriff has the votes to continue to manage his funds as he has in the past.
“I would have thought during the course of the year there would be a lot of transfers back and forth (in the budget),” Commissioner Bob Solari said to the Sheriff at the Aug. 17 County Commission meeting. “I would have expected a budget that reflected those cuts.”
Loar will present his revised budget at a Sept. 8 meeting at the Commission Chambers. If all goes well, the budget could be approved on Sept. 15.
The Sheriff says he will not make any more staff cuts, but will weigh every request for extra services and will be cutting some training and likely will have to turn down some requests by non-profits that his office has helped out in the past.
Getting to this point has led to some testy exchanges between the Commission and Loar.
Commissioners have pointed to the fact that the county has over the past several years reduced both jobs and services in an effort to avoid higher taxes in a community with more than 14 percent unemployment – one of the highest in Florida. And, they say, Loar has been largely spared over the past three years while they’ve asked other constitutional officers to make cuts -- including the property appraiser, tax collector, supervisor of elections, and the clerk of court.
The Sheriff attended a July budget workshop -- where he went to defend his request for a budget increase -- and came away with what he thought was an agreement that he would accept a 4.6 percent cut from last year’s budget to just over $40 million, but going forward would be given the authority to manage the money as he saw fit.
The sheriff is responsible for law enforcement in the county, corrections and some court services and has broad powers to administer his payroll, day-to-day expenses and long -term capital expenses.
Dating back to Sheriff Roy Raymond’s tenure, there had been a tacit agreement between the county and the sheriff’s office that money could be moved between the sub-categories as he deemed necessary. As an example, the Sheriff would appear before the commission and say he needed to buy two police cars and would move money from areas where he’d realized savings.
Those past budgets were more flush and had funds in them for positions that were not filled (or were in the process of being filled), providing money that could be moved around in the budget. The proposed budget eliminates much of that wriggle room.
Loar wants the ability to manage his allotment, and he points out that those requests in front of the county commissioners are a courtesy and not required by law.
The Sheriff appeared at the Aug. 17 County Commission meeting with a letter formalizing that agreement, but the Commissioners were advised by their lawyer to put that on hold until the budget has actually been passed in September.
The board of commissioners is not in total agreement on this budgeting procedure, with former Sheriff and current commission Gary Wheeler absolutely and consistently opposed to the practice.
“If I were in your shoes, I would do the same thing and I don’t fault you for asking,” Wheeler said at the Aug. 17 commission meeting. “But I have a different responsibility to the taxpayers than I had as Sheriff. Budgets need to be as accurate as possible and if they need to be amended, they should be amended publicly before the money is spent.”
In his initial budget request, Loar also provided more upfront detail on capital expenditures at the request of the county commissioners. He said in order to keep staffing up he will likely cut out all capital expenses for next year.
“Here is what we have done to come up with a formula to meet the Board of County Commissioner’s request for a budget of $40,067,000,” he said. “I had $1.5 million in capital, I cut capital out of the budget. But here is the peril in doing that. Every computer, every automobile, every item that we have over $1,000 -- I have extended its life span from five to seven years.
“The problem is that when you start using older equipment, dependability comes into question and remember these cars are running a lot and my fear is that expenses are going to go up quite a bit. That is the balance that I have to figure out.”
The Sheriff is instituting other cuts as well in overtime (a practice started under his watch last year), training, travel, contracts, and the aviation unit among other items. He also re-invigorated his grants writing program and has come up with money to fund some initiatives and salaries over the next couple of years.
“My directive to staff the day after the July 14 budget workshop was that there were a number of things we were going to cut,” he said. “My goal was to not layoff any more employees even though salaries are a huge expense. I knew if we laid off one employee the next person would be looking over his shoulder asking, ‘Am I next?’ I don’t think that is the work atmosphere for public safety.”
Loar said his new budget will reflect accurate figures for all his employees, and have a cap of 500, which includes uniformed and corrections officers, detectives, 911 operators, school crossing guards, school resource officers, marine and air units and support staff.
“This budget reduction has forced us to take some risks, but essentially get back to the bare basics of law enforcement,” he said. “I am gambling on $1.5 million reduction and not buying any capital. I am gambling on the equipment making it another 12 months. I am gambling on automobiles not being crashed or engines failing. There are a lot of things I am crossing my fingers. I am gambling we don’t have an influx of prison inmates with critical needs.”
The Sheriff also said a similar request for a budget cuts next year would leave no sacred cows in his calculations. Commissioner Wesley Davis indicated at the last commission meeting that all signs do point to a similar reduction next year and he, along with the other commissioners, remains firmly against raising taxes.
“I will say a cut like this next year will result in layoffs,” Loar said. “We have already cut $3.2 million (from proposed budgets) in the last 19 months. That is a strain on any organization.”
Loar said he realizes he is not being asked to do anything other government official or homeowner haven’t had to go through the last few years.
“Overall I am doing my part as a constitutional officer and will manage those taxpayer dollars to turn out the best product,” he said. “I have the largest portion of the budget and I understand that.”