Emergency Management Stripped from HCSO, Higher Taxes Looming
BROOKSVILLE – Last year’s shenanigans between the Hernando Board of County Commissioners and Sheriff Al Nienhuis overshadowed almost every issue brought before the former board. Despite promises by new commissioners that things would be different this year, it appears that we are still in for a roller coaster ride over the same old issues and a few new ones.
You may recall the fiasco over the BOCC’s decision to short the Sheriff’s Office budget by $1.7 million late last year. (Click for full story) Commissioner Nick Nicholson said the decision to reduce the budget was in line with his promise never to raise taxes on the community. But Sheriff Nienhuis says the cut severely compromised his ability to fight crime and keep the community safe. Nienhuis says the additional funding would have been used to increase the number of K-9 units and employee new investigators to keep track of the rising number of sexual predators in the County. But those pleas fell on deaf ears, which prompted the Sheriff to file an appeal with the Governor’s Office. That case is still pending.Earlier this month Sheriff Nienhuis found himself standing in front of the Board once again, fighting to keep Emergency Management under the Sheriff’s Office Control. On February 28th the BOCC entertained discussion over relinquishing control of EM and giving it back to the County Administrator, Len Sossaman. The “discussion” was supposed to be just that, a discussion, say Nienhuis, and he was shocked to discover that the BOCC voted to remove control from HCSO without so much as a meeting between all parties involved.
Nienhuis told RNRF during an exclusive interview, “I was a little dismayed and surprised at the process. The agenda item appeared without any prior conversation with me or the command staff.” He went on to say, “The concern I have is that there was very little research into the cost or difficulty in taking it back. In 2009 they asked for the Sheriff’s Office to take back control and that time there was trouble, and there was dysfunction, and I think by all accounts it had been running smoothly.”
Sheriff Nienhuis was forced to leave the meeting before its conclusion, due to a bomb threat investigation what was taking place at a local pharmacy. Deputy Chief Mike Maurer stepped to the podium in his place and stated “It was a dysfunctional, problematic, inefficient operation, with personnel problems, communication problems, and operational problems.” referring to how the County controlled Emergency Management prior to Sheriff’s Office takeover in 2009.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes responded to opposition by stating “If something actually happens and we go into an emergency situation the responsibility immediately switches from the Sheriff’s Office to the then-sitting chairman and the administrator, and mostly the administrator.” Dukes goes on to say “To me it would be so much more efficient if the EOC reported directly to the administrator – period.”
Commissioner John Allocco, the lone dissenter, questioned the move and said “One of my concerns and I brought it up in the last segment, Sossamon overseas economic development, he’s keeping tabs on what’s going on at the airport and that’s been a little bit of an issue lately” I don’t know that I want to add one more thing on top of Mr. Sossamon’s list of responsibilities right now.” Allocco went on to ask “Can’t we just “CC” him (Len Sossamon) instead of moving the entire operation?” Dukes replied firmly “NO!”
Commissioner Steve Champion also questioned the move but eventually agreed and voted yes on the agenda item. Champion told RNRF during an interview “The move will only shift responsibility to the County Administrator. All decisions to respond to incidents will still be in the hands of the Sheriff’s Office.” Champion says there will be no additional cost to the taxpayer, despite claims by the Sheriff’s Office that the county will have to purchase new vehicles and other equipment to complete the transition.
Sheriff Nienhuis says that it will definitely cost more because health benefits alone are twice the cost of what the Sheriff’s Office pays.
But that’s not the only struggle facing the BOCC and HCSO, on March 28th the BOCC will vote to establish a Municipal Service Taxing Unit (MSTU) for Law Enforcement in the unincorporated areas of Hernando County. If established, the MSTU would result in a mandatory equivalent reduction to the General Fund millage rate, according to a County Government media release.
“I asked for this item to be placed on the agenda for Board discussion so we can resolve the budget appeal with the Sheriff once and for all,” Chairman Wayne Dukes said. “I believe the best way to do this while providing full transparency to our taxpayers is to establish a MSTU. In addition to the millage rate needed to maintain the Sheriff’s approved budget, I’m prepared to transfer an additional $1.2 million to his current budget to settle the budget appeal and fully fund the Sheriff.”
So in essence, the Sheriff will get the funding he requires but not without the BOCC implementing the MSTU and what he says is “a new tax.”
Animal Control is next on the “chopping block” as the BOCC plans to decide on whether the Sheriff’s Office should retain control of enforcement operations. Nienhuis says “If they think it will work better in their control then by all means take it over.”
It should be noted that local business owner John Mitten was recently appointed by Governor Rick Scott to serve as interim Commissioner, while Commissioner Jeff Holcomb is on military leave.
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