Saturday, July 07, 2007

This was one budget cut they refused to make.

Sarasota County commissioners agreed Thursday to direct Sheriff William Balkwill to find $762,000 in cuts elsewhere in his budget and not close the Venice holding facility, as Balkwill proposed at Tuesday's budget workshop.

The facility, though not actually a jail, acts as a station to process South County inmates before they are transported to the jail in Sarasota.

The possible closing of the Venice facility brought strong reactions from Venice Police Chief Julie Williams and North Port Chief Terry Lewis.

Williams said the closing would have a "potentially devastating impact," because it would reduce the number of officers on the road and in the community.

"When I heard they were going to close the facility Tuesday, you could say it shocked me," Williams added.

Lewis agreed, citing he could lose officers for up to five and six hours at a time should they be forced to haul their inmates up to Sarasota for booking.

"I understand the budget constraints the sheriff's office is under, but we're all under constraints," Lewis said.

Pay scales

County Commissioner Shannon Staub believed Balkwill could locate funds elsewhere in his budget to save the Venice holding facility.

"Find $762,000 out of an $85 million budget? I think I could find that," Staub said. "There's all kinds of (cuts) that don't include personnel."

Staub suggested Balkwill could reduce "non-person things" in his budget, such as helicopter flyovers, training and travel.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta suggested Balkwill could cut at least 2-5 percent more from his budget, much of it in salaries.

"Just flipping pages (in Balkwill's budget), I see overtime (totaling) $100,000," Barbetta said. "And when I look at the pay scale of how many majors and captains there are, I don't know if the public understands what the cost is for each one of these -- $120,000, $116,000. Lieutenants, $110,000. There's a lot of high-ranking officers that maybe if you just held back on the promotions for a year or two, you'd find another $1-2 million."

"And has he tried to work with the cities (of North Port and Venice) to see if they would somehow help out?" Staub said.

"I can't state strongly enough that I think the sheriff ought to get together with the chiefs of police in both jurisdictions to come up with a solution," echoed Commissioner Paul Mercier.


That was the subject of a letter that went out to Balkwill from the commissioners Thursday, asking him to "see if you might sharpen your pencil a bit more such that you would be able to maintain operations of the Venice facility within your proposed fiscal year 2008 budget."

The letter went on to suggest North Port and Venice "should get together on expenses maintaining the facility" since their operations both benefit through its existence.

Lt. Chuck Lesaltato of the sheriff's office acknowledged receipt of the letter and said a formal answer would come later.

"Sheriff Balkwill needs to go over the numbers again to prepare a response," Lesaltato said.

Balkwill made some points at Tuesday's budget workshop, however, on the topic of how cuts affect his department.

"The more you cut into law enforcement services, the tougher it gets for us," Balkwill said. "When you start cutting back on vehicles, start cutting back on manpower, start cutting back on whether we can give people raises or not, it can have a huge impact. It's hard times right now and it's sad that what's happened in the Legislature is now affecting us in the county."

By Steven J. Smith Sun Herald

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