The Joseph E. Johnston, III City Council Chambers was full on Monday evening, Oct. 16, 2017 for a presentation on how the county’s potential implementation of a Municipal Service Taxation Unit (MSTU) for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office could affect the city.
On Oct. 12, City Council Member Natalie Kahler posted a video on social media emphasizing the importance of this particular item. She stated, “CITY TAXPAYER ALERT Potentially the most important Council meeting in my tenure.” On Monday, October 16th at 7pm, Council hear a proposal from the Sheriff’s department for replacing the Brooksville Police Department. My concerns are not anti-Sheriff, but I do believe we get a better service (response time, crime solve rates, etc.) for less money. ”
Colonel Mike Maurer represented the Sheriff’s Office in the discussion of the MSTU. “The Sheriff’s Office strongly opposes the use of an MSTU,” he began.
Of the total millage rate, the Sheriff’s Office portion is 4.1 mills. Col. Maurer explained, “The 4.1 mill removal from the county ad valorem equates to 70% of our operations overall budgeted at the Sheriff’s Office.”
He emphasized several times during the meeting that the city of Brooksville receives “enhanced police services.”
Col. Maurer stated that there would be $1.6 million in savings to the city if the city opts out of a Sheriff’s Office MSTU, but certain services that the Sheriff’s Office provides will cost additional monies out of pocket. Those services include road patrol, forensics and crime scene processing, criminal investigations, animal control officers, dispatch services, school resource officers, K9 assistance, the use of aviation, narcotics, major case, criminal transports…
“These are the things right now that the city residents get for paying taxes to the county.”
“Dispatch alone could potentially cost you up to $400,000 a year,” he said.
Col. Maurer continued, stating that the Sheriff’s Office response/presence for the recent protest at the city’s Confederate Soldier Statue cost $22,000.
After listing the costs of these services that would be charged to the city of Brooksville, Col. Maurer stated that the $1.6 million reduction for the city could lead to a tax increase for county.
“That $1.6 million is either going to come out of the county’s sheriff’s budget or it’s going to have to be passed on as an increase to the unincorporated taxpayers of Hernando County.”
With this statement, the Sheriff’s Office will make out pretty well if the county actually raises taxes to make up for the $1.6 million. In that way, they will be paid for rendering individual services to the city and then the county taxpayers will pay for the city’s lost portion of the general fund relating to Sheriff’s services. Theoretically, yes, the Sheriff’s Office budget should be reduced since the city will be paying the Sheriff’s Office directly for individual services rendered.
Later in the meeting, Kahler delved into this inconsistency using Hershey’s Kisses to demonstrate. Laying before her five Hershey’s Kisses, she said that if the county provides equal service to 5 areas of the county and they are all paying for the services equivalently, if you take one away then the other areas should not have to bear the load of the other’s share because services are no longer being rendered to that departed area. She explained that only if the departed area was paying more than their equivalent share, would it affect the amount the other areas pay. This supports her conclusion that the city is actually subsidizing other areas of the county.
Col. Maurer adhered to his original statement.
William Kemerer emphasized that he would only be interested in opting out of patrol and investigative services through an MSTU. “Those are the two main things that our police department does for us,” he stated.
The Sheriff’s Office handles patrol services by dividing the county into zones. There are four zones that surround the city and patrol officers in the surrounding zones will conduct patrol through the city. The city itself does not have any patrols specifically assigned to it.
Kemerer inquired how investigative services work. Maurer said that investigative assistance is primarily engaged by the city. Maurer explained that there are many instances where the county’s crime analysis unit assists city detectives and officers with searches and other relational database stuff.
When the Brooksville Police Chief George B. Turner addressed the Council, he painted a slightly different picture as far as investigative services and forensics. He stated that he did not need to utilize the Sheriff’s Office forensic services, and he has done so in the past due to convenience. He stated that while their forensics specialists are highly trained, the city’s personnel can do the job.
“They have a great forensic unit. I use them on occasion, because they are convenient. I have personnel that can do it, just as good and will get the same results. We do call upon Citrus County Sheriff’s, Pinellas County Sheriff’s, FBI, DEA, FDLE regularly. We do that because we all work together. We back them up, they back us up,” explained Chief Turner.
During the discussion, Mayor Battista referred to a Florida Supreme Court 1985 determination that “Sheriff’s services inside a municipality… is not double taxation.”
Battista continued, “Residents of the city actually travel in and out of the county going from point A to point B and therefore they receive those services…”
He then said, “We can still do an MSTU regardless of the double taxation realities of the Florida Supreme Court.”
Battista explained that the municipal service taxing units and municipal service benefit units were set up to gives counties the ability to provide city type services to unincorporated areas, such as paving streets and providing streetlights. The MSTU gives the county the ability to assess 10 more mills for municipal type services in addition to the 10 mills they already have for county services. The Sheriff is a Constitutional Officer under the county government.
Battista stated, “I find it a bastardization of the system for the county to go to a municipal service taxing unit… to fund the county sheriff. He’s supposed to be funded within the 10 mills that counties are given under the Constitution. The municipal services provided should be municipal services not normally provided for by the county. It doesn’t mean it’s not done. It’s done throughout the state of Florida and apparently nobody has challenged it.”
“I don’t think the county is looking at patrol and investigative functions as we envision that,” said Battista.
Discussion turned to the option the city has put forth in dissolving their police department entirely.
Col. Maurer explained that the 4 zones surrounding the city would basically absorb the coverage of the city, by expanding those zones to cover the city. They would not need to hire additional personnel to cover the area.
“On the fiscal side, that would be a $3 million reduction that we pay for the police department,” said Council Member Bernardini. He then said that the other part is what you lose in response time. Currently, the city has a response time of around 3 minutes, while the county would take longer with response times around 7.5 to 8 minutes.
Kahler pointed to the pension liability expenses even after the police department is dissolved.
Battista mentioned a second option of two patrol units and a Sergeant inside the city limits at all times.
For the Sheriff’s Office to provide two deputies in the city with a Sergeant overseeing a wider district, Maurer said it would cost about $1.2 - $1.4 million.
Betty Erhard, after clarifying the MSTU may save taxpayers some money, said that it will not affect the city’s budget and will not solve their current budget issues.
“Unless we find ways to cut costs, we will not have a city,” she stated.
“By taking 4 mills out of our tax bills, we’ll come very close in line with the unincorporated areas,” replied Kahler. She said there will be more incentive for people to be in the city. “It makes us more attractive as a community.”
“There is a benefit even if it’s not in my budget document,” Kahler stated.
When Chief Turner addressed Council, he stated, “I’m not here to get involved in the MSTU.” He was overall concerned with the loss of the level of service that the city now enjoys if the department were to be dissolved and of the welfare of his officers. “When you’re talking about doing away with the Brooksville Police Department, you’re talking about laying off 30 families,” said Chief Turner.
He explained that their solve rates are higher and pointed to their response time of 3 minutes versus the county’s 8 minutes. He commended the county, saying that 7 to 8 minutes is a good response time for a county.
As far as dispatch goes, he agreed that it would be a big cost to take it over, but it is something that can be done and, optimistically, he said that the city could do it for under $400,000.
Referring to dispatch, he said, “That’s the only service we use, that we need. Everything else is convenience.”
Of the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, he stated, “We back them up just as much as they back us up. We will never charge them for that. I as your Chief will never recommend that we ever charge another police agency to back them up.”
For aviation, Chief Turner explained that during the ten years he’s been with the department, he said he’s only seen the helicopter twice and he never called one in. He said that they now can utilize drones. “I can’t see a reason for me to call in a helicopter,” said Chief Turner.
Chief Turner explained that the department has one K9 and at one point they had three, but he doesn’t see the need for having three. “We have money for a K9- but they are expensive. We lend our K9 to the Sheriff’s Office and they lend their K9 to us… It’s all in kind. We work together.”
“As far as working together, we do as much for the Sheriff as they do for us. They have a great department. I respect all of them,” said Chief Turner.
The discussion on this evening, left much for the city council and community members to think about.