Manatee County commissioners got one of the toughest decisions right in the budget for next year. They kept the property tax rate flat. Or so it appears. That will not be official until the final rate is approved in September. But it is mildly disappointing that they could not prioritize more and provide the Manate County Sheriff’s Office what it asked for after going through four years of dwindling resources.
In other county offices, cutbacks are more doable and make sense. But law enforcement is perhaps the most important element of local government, the most critical service it provides to residents and taxpayers.
In June, Sheriff Brad Steube laid out a persuasive case for a sheriff’s office in critical need, as resources and deputies have dwindled while the population has increased and the crime rate is beginning to grow. Maybe the most compelling data from Steube were statistics showing the combination of rising crime with falling positions has resulted in slower response times and almost no regular patrols.
The department has cut 62 positions since 2008, but calls for service have increased 18% and arrests are up 8% since then. That is a stretched staff. Senior deputies have been lost to other law-enforcement agencies because of the pay difference.
At the jail, the situation was as dire. When the new county jail opened in 1995, the Florida Department of Corrections said 217 corrections deputies were needed for the 992 beds. The jail now has 1,780 beds but only 215 corrections officers.
Given this background, Steube originally asked the County Commission for 20 new positions — 10 deputies and 10 corrections officers. Commissioners agreed to 10 new positions in a compromise that kept the tax rate flat.
Steube also wanted money for repairs to the department’s property and evidence room, which has been damaged by water leaks and rodent infestations. It is a shame that was left to deteriorate during the go-go years when tax revenues were ample and spending was less constrained.
Funding the sheriff will be back at the top of the commissioners’ agenda next year. Last week’s vote can be seen as a stop-gap measure to get through the year. But the population will probably increase. Crime is trending up. The sheriff almost assuredly will be asking for more officers, which will mean more money.
But with 10 more personnel this year, Steube needs to show progress at some measurable level. It may not be all he asked for, but his responsibility is to use the extra resources to maximum value.
There is no good reason to think the economy will be humming along, and even if by some miracle it is, property values always lag. Commissioners should be watching county government closely between now and next year to see where else money can be saved and law enforcement can be adequately funded.