JOSH SALMAN ; Staff Writer
Law enforcement agencies across Southwest Florida have failed to keep pace with the steep cuts made by counties and school boards over the life of the recession — even while crime rates slipped to 40-year lows.
Shrinking home values have dealt a steady blow to the tax pots that support government operations — forcing public officials to close buildings, lay off employees and erase long-standing services.
But since the economy began tumbling into its historic crash, the sheriff’s offices in Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota counties mostly have managed to escape the pain, according to a Sun analysis of public financial records.
With just less than half of the property tax revenue available, the sheriffs’ operating budgets across the Suncoast have ballooned since the 2006-2007 fiscal year — leaving other government services like libraries and education scrambling to pick up the slack.
Sheriffs from all three counties defended their spending by touting the importance of public safety. Their governmental counterparts don’t buy it.
“We can’t continue to have law enforcement skate on its share of the revenue decline,” Charlotte County Commission Chairman Bob Starr said. “In these times, everybody has to pitch in. We’re at the point where there’s nothing left to cut.”
Charlotte has shed $243 million from its budget over the last five years, while eliminating 397 full-time positions. The county’s $749.2 million budget is its lowest since 2004-05, according to public records.
Similarly, Charlotte County Public Schools trimmed 7 percent since 2006-’07 to reach its current $135.9 million budget — slashing 133 full-time positions along the way.
The school system, which has most of its millage rates dictated by the state, relies on the largest portion of the overall tax base. Officials said so far they’ve been able to absorb the cuts with little effect on education, but they fear that won’t last much longer.
“We’ve been working on this budget for years to do whatever we could to make it leaner,” schools spokesman Mike Riley said. “It’s been tough, and it’s caused a lot of stress and strain, but we really haven’t touched the classrooms.”
Through it all, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office budget never slowed to adjust. Instead of downsizing, the organization added three full-time employees and $2.2 million to the books over the last five years — a trend that continued into Sarasota and DeSoto, the records show.
In 2006, when times were good, Charlotte County and the sheriff equally split the $116.7 million total property tax pool — the largest single source of revenue. Today, the Sheriff’s Office eats closer to 76 percent of that pie, according to the county budget office.
Each year the sheriff keeps the budget flat, his tax consumption is expected to grow — leaving less for other critical government services.
Sheriff Bill Cameron said the community has made it clear it doesn’t want to loosen the standard for public safety, so he has funded his organization accordingly. The sheriff’s budget, including the county jail, has hovered around $57 million the last three years.
Cameron sees that baseline as a reduction. He’s had to seek cuts to overcome the rising costs of fuel, employee benefits and bullets. Charlotte’s total crime index also has dropped 26 percent since 2006 — a feat that likely would reverse if patrols were taken off the street, he said.
“We have made cuts every year just to stay flat,” Cameron said. “We’re stretched thin. Law enforcement typically is a tight-budgeted function. There’s just not a lot of fluff, and when you start making cuts, you notice it quickly. This is a service the community is willing to pay for.”
In Sarasota, budget records showed much of the same.
The county, less proactive than Charlotte, chopped $144 million over the last five years to reach its current $998.3 million budget. Sarasota also employs 438 fewer workers than it did in 2006.
The School Board was close behind, reducing the $414.8 million budget in 2006 by $54 million and 744 employees, according to the analysis.
But again, the Sheriff’s Office found itself headed in the other direction. The law enforcement agency removed 33 full-time employees from its payroll, but the overall budget still grew by $2.2 million. Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight’s $87.7 million budget now employs 765 total workers.
Personnel costs consume the largest portion of expenses for law enforcement agencies, and Sarasota already is patrolling with fewer deputies per capita than the 1.7 state average. Knight said there’s no fat left to trim.
“Our budgets are always on the chopping block, and we always have to defend them, but at the end of the day, we’re the last line of defense,” Knight said. “When a burglar shows up to your home at 2 a.m., you want to make sure we respond. If you don’t have safety and security, you don’t have any environment to live in. The people that don’t run police departments don’t understand that.”
The DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office, while working with a much slimmer checkbook, also has evaded the cuts.
The rural inland county managed to slash one-third of its entire budget since ’06-’07 without cumulatively losing one full-time employee, bringing its operating total to $55.9 million. The Sheriff’s Office added $450,000 to its small $8 million budget over that time.
“We took a lot of hits in a lot places like everyone else did,” DeSoto County Commissioner Juril “Buddy” Mansfield said. “But through it all we tried to keep services the same.”
Sun intern Tom Chang contributed to this report.