Local News

Sheriff tosses budget ball back into county's court

SEBRING - Faced with a possible $800,000 cut in her budget, Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton said Friday she may hand back that much responsibility to the county commission. At a special budget meeting on Thursday night, the Highlands County commissioners walked in with a $6 million deficit. Their choices were to raise taxes or cut the budget. Since revenues were down, Commissioner Don Elwell suggested that the board and the five constitutional officers agree on a new policy: cut their own budgets to match rising or falling revenues. "If revenues go down 2 or 3 percent, our budgets ought to go down 2 or 3 percent," Elwell reasoned. "What I am proposing is that we look at a comparable base year for each constitutional officer."
The property appraiser is required by the state to pay for aerial mapping every three years, Raymond McIntyre told the board three weeks ago. The elections supervisor must conduct a costly presidential primary every four years and a less costly gubernatorial primary every four years, Penny Ogg said. Elwell made special exceptions for the clerk of courts, who has taken on cost-saving information technology maintenance from other constitutional officers and the county commissioners. Then, Elwell added a 1 percent increase to each of the six budgets. Benton had asked for a 4.6 percent increase in her budget. According to county budget chief Tim Mechling, that totaled $1,035,578. Instead, Elwell offered a 1 percent increase, which would cut $808,000 from the sheriff's budget. About $600,000 of that increase was due to a state-mandated Florida Retirement System increase, Commissioner Jim Brooks noted, but Elwell countered that the county and all five constitutional officers also had to pay more. "Primarily, what we are going to probably end up having to do is cutting positions and program work that we do," Benton responded Friday. She was vacationing out of state when the commissioners met. "And it's really going to end up being a cost shift," Benton said. "For example, I can cut about $330,000 from the bailiff's unit that covers all the security aspects at the courthouse, because that's not really the sheriff's responsibility." Florida requires the county commission to maintain and secure the courthouse. In Highlands County, the sheriff customarily has done that. "Also, I can cut another $100,000 for our three full-time maintenance personnel that maintain that old 32-air-conditioner building that we have," Benton said, referring to the sheriff's office. "Because maintenance at the county buildings is really the board's responsibility too. "So I can get to the $800,000 by cutting programs and personnel that are not our responsibility to begin with," Benton said. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828