Local News

Commissioners start out next budget

—The sheriff might cut $1 million out of her budget, and the IDA-EDC will once again receive full funding.

That was decided Wednesday morning by the Highlands County commissioners during the second day of budget hearings.

Sheriff Susan Benton said people watching Tuesday on television took offense to what commissioners said about the sheriff’s office.

“We’re looking for $10.8 million dollars here,” Commissioner Don Elwell said Tuesday, throwing up his hands and shaking his head.

“We spent $8 million for a radio system,” Chairman Greg Harris said. “We shouldn’t have any communications expenditures.” Benton had requested another $763,000, plus a $1.1 million increase in her annual budget.

On Tuesday, Benton began by saying she had received calls. “On behalf my members, maybe you guys don’t understand what we do. Just because our budget increased $1.1 million, I feel like you have taken it way too lighthearted.”

Her staff presented their budgets twice in May, and she demanded cuts. “And then I cut an additional $2.5 million out.

“I don’t want anybody to think this is an inflated budget,” Benton said. “This is what it costs to run the sheriff’s office.”

She is required to budget for uncompensated absences, like vacations not taken, and that amount went down.

“But overtime has almost doubled,” Benton said. In part, that’s due to not hiring deputies when positions have been frozen.

“We are calling on people on nearly every shift to maintain minimal staffing,” Benton said. “We have five zones in the north and five zones in the south. Those need to be covered. We can’t send deputies by themselves to some calls.”

“Wouldn’t it be cheaper to hire more deputies?” Commissioner Ron Handley asked.

She swears in new deputies regularly, Benton said. She’s even sending new hires to the police academy.

“We are advertising in the papers, in journals,” Benton said. “It’s just tough to get people who want to do this job.”

Highlands County is ranked 44th among Florida counties in pay, 22nd among sergeant’s pay.

“We’ve lost five to Polk County, and they are losing them to Lakeland Police,” Benton said. “We’re not overpaying, we’re probably underpaying.”

She could shave $300,000 off insurance and retirement budgets, Benton said. “But we have to have insurance. We shoot people and put them in jail.

“Firearms and ammo. We have 200 people who have to qualify at the range every year. We will try to take a look at that with our training guy, but it’s a pretty set thing.”

Benton requested six new positions, including a courthouse bailiff she cut a few years ago.

Could she hold her budget to the 2013-14 level, Elwell asked.

“No,” Benton said.

“But if you didn’t hire the full 20” deputies, Commissioner Ron Handley countered, “you’d be there.”

“Possibly,” she agreed.

“But I cannot take it from the jail,” Benton said. “It’s a very dangerous position in there. If I have to take it from road patrols, I’d have to close a zone, and that could increase overtime. It’s a dangerous world, and these guys cannot be out there alone.”

The commissioners defunded the Industrial Development Authority-Economic Development Commission for half of the fiscal year.

On Tuesday, Executive Director Stephen Weeks came back asking for $240,000. “It was $215,000 last year.

The agency has received $940,000 in defense grants, Weeks said, and has attracted new clients.

GulfCoast has invested $1.5 million and hired 45 workers, Weeks said.

TECNAM has invested $1 million and will hire from five to 50 workers.

Village will invest $9 million and will hire 60 to 80 workers.

Recycle will produce 15 to 20 jobs.

Six more industries may come, Weeks said. They could invest $16 million and hire 340 workers.

Weeks hopes to hear from Project Impala within the next month.

“That’s clearly a restaurant,” Elwell said, and asked whether the EDC developed that lead.

“Most came to us,” Weeks said. In some cases, Enterprise Florida, the state’s version of the EDC, supplied the lead.

“There is some good stuff going on,” Harris agreed, “but we want quarterly updates.”

Weeks laid off the entire staff, or they found other jobs. He now has one contract employee, but would hire two more if the commission agreed to $240,000.

“I think we’ve seen quite a bit of forward movement,” Commissioner Jim Brooks agreed.

“I think we need to invest in it,” Harris said. “It does pay dividends.”

“This money is a necessity to keeping our livelihood open,” Richie said, and complimented the EDC board, which he called talented and educated.

“But we would like to see some real good results on your investments,” Richie said firmly. “I support giving them the money.”

Elwell looked askance and blew out air.

“Scrooge?” Harris turned to Elwell.

Elwell laughed. “I think that EDC is doing a better job than they did before. I would not be interested in jumping back in at $240,000. Maybe $215,000, at the most.”

The other four commissioners nodded their agreement.

Commissioners spent four hours on Tuesday and six hours on Wednesday whittling down each department’s budget, line by line, sometimes suggesting cuts of a few thousand dollars.

“Cremations,” Harris said, looking at the county’s indigent burial program. Cremating people who die without enough money to bury themselves is cheaper than burial plots, embalming and funerals. “We have a real opportunity to save some money here.”

They saw a chance to save money on traffic operations, which had only a $15,229 budget.

Maybe they could delay Sebring Parkway Phase III for another year, Harris suggested.

One possible area to cut was the $110,000 to each city to compensate for when county residents use city parks, but they did not take out that funding.