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Wednesday, Dec 12, 2018
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Brooksville council begins study of law enforcement options

BROOKSVILLE — The City Council has jumped headlong into a discussion about the future of the Brooksville Police Department — specifically whether to maintain it as is or change the way law enforcement service is provided in an effort to relieve the city's budget woes.

Inspired in part by a Facebook video plea by council member Natalie Kahler, residents crowded into the council chambers Monday night, many of them praising the work of the city police and urging the council to reject disbanding the department.

Mayor Robert Battista tried to set the stage, pointing out that the council had no plans to make an immediate decision, and that what some people thought might happen was not on the agenda for discussion, despite emails and phone calls council members had received.

Instead, Battista said, the council planned to discuss the idea of asking the county to establish a special taxing district for the Sheriff's Office, something Sheriff Al Nienhuis has strongly opposed. The council was also planning to talk about extra services the sheriff could provide if the city opted out of sheriff's patrols and what costs the city might bear.

The council has discussed asking the County Commission to enact the taxing unit, then opting out of it, meaning that only city police would patrol Brooksville's streets. But the council also is considering asking the sheriff to take over all city law enforcement.

That idea didn't sit well with Brooksville resident Sherry Pedonesi, who said she appreciated having a city police force. After hearing information from the Sheriff's Office about costs, she suggested putting that money into extras for the city police instead.

"I would like to keep them and their personalized service inside the city,'' Pedonesi said.

While a decision was not to be made immediately, Brooksville resident Jason Sager warned, "This is the very beginning of the conversation that will lead to the dissolution of the Police Department and the Fire Department.''

He said taking away those basic services would be the "nail in the coffin'' for the city of Brooksville.

The chief deputy for Nienhuis, Col. Mike Maurer, explained that the sheriff's opposition to the taxing unit is that it would cost more money, add bureaucracy and lessen transparency.

Maurer used the analogy that residents in unincorporated Spring Hill get the "basic cable" version of law enforcement through the sheriff. In Brooksville, city residents pay for police service, but also get add-ons that the sheriff provides.

"You guys have the full package,'' Maurer said.

Beyond basic patrol functions, he said, the sheriff provides criminal investigations, forensics, dispatch, prisoner transport, K-9 officers, animal enforcement and major case assistance.

"That's what the city gets for paying taxes to the county,'' he said.

He gave examples of how sheriff's support to the city in a recent shooting would have cost $10,000 and how the recent controversy over the Confederate statue on the grounds of the Hernando County Courthouse included $22,000 worth of support from the sheriff.

Alternatively, if the city were to opt just for beefed-up law enforcement services in Brooksville, two sheriff's deputies dedicated to service inside the city limits could cost Brooksville taxpayers an extra $1.2 million to $1.4 million a year, Maurer said.

For more than two hours, council members discussed a myriad of issues, ranging from response times and patrol zones to alternative service sources and reviving a city-only dispatch service.

Brooksville Police Chief George Turner strongly defended his department and his independence from the sheriff's services, which he uses sometimes for convenience. But other add-ons, such as deploying the sheriff's helicopter at a rate of $5,000 an hour, he said he would never ask for. He also said that law enforcement agencies typically work together and that he would never consider having the Police Department charge the county when his officers assist sheriff's deputies.

By the end of the discussion, the only clear consensus among council members was that they needed more information on the county's projections of what property tax rate would be needed through a special taxing unit for basic law enforcement services.

If the number is too high, Brooksville would have a problem because the state sets a cap on the total tax rate a city can levy on property owners.

Battista said he hopes council members, at their next meeting, will agree not to disband either the city police or fire department without a referendum vote by Brooksville residents.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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