Darnell still upset with County Commission; PBA pulls endorsement of Pinkoson, Chestnut

Published: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 9:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 9:42 p.m.

The day after venting frustration and anger at the County Commission during a budget meeting, Sheriff Sadie Darnell said that, if she had to do it again, she wouldn't change a thing.

"I never wanted it to be adversarial," Darnell said. "I have tried for four years now to constantly be a team player, but I was frustrated and I would do it the same ... They pushed me into a corner last night and I reacted and I do not apologize."

A majority of commissioners say additional reductions to the current request of approximately $65.5 million need to be made in order to avoid further cuts elsewhere. Darnell plans to appeal to the governor and Cabinet if her budget request is not approved.

With a potential stalemate looming, the North Central Florida Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association rescinded its endorsement of commissioners Cynthia Chestnut and Lee Pinkoson in their re-election bids.

Referring to Tuesday's budget meeting, PBA president Brandon Kutner wrote in a press release that the union was "disgusted with such a contemptuous display by the County Commission and County Manager in an attempt to refocus citizen attention away from their uncontrolled spending and misplaced budget priorities."

Commissioners meet again this afternoon on the sheriff's request and on other areas of the proposed fiscal year 2010-11 budget. Staff has projected that funding reductions to other departments, services and programs need to reach at least $3.9 million to balance the general fund.

At Tuesday's meeting, it was approximately five hours before Darnell had the opportunity to discuss her budget. Prior to that, commissioners dealt with two subjects that had drawn large contingent of the audience -- the Community Agency Partnership Program that provides funding to nonprofit agencies and a community resource center planned for residents in the low-income apartment complexes of the "Tower triangle" area along Southwest 24th Avenue.

Darnell felt commissioners "purposely" and "intentionally" manipulated the agenda in order to "minimize" the importance of her department's budget.

When she reached the podium, Darnell argued that commissioners and County Manager Randall Reid left her department "underpaid and under-appreciated." She said they had a "cavalier" attitude toward public safety and a "bleeding heart" attitude when it came to staff reductions in other departments while the county jail, in her estimation, was under-staffed by 30 officers, leading to unsafe conditions for corrections officers and inmates alike.

"I don't have any quarrel with the sheriff," Reid said Wednesday. "I have an obligation to have a balanced budget."

He noted that the projected worst-case scenario budget cuts he submitted for other departments could have eliminated up to 60 positions.

Commissioner Mike Byerly questioned if the Sheriff's Office was not now "overfunded" with the call load down by about 24,400 over the last three years -- a factor he attributed to annexations -- and with major crime rates down through the first half of 2010 compared to the same six months last year.

"I don't think any area of government is sacrosanct and beyond consideration, beyond investigation, of budget reductions," Byerly said.

Byerly added that the potential cuts to the Sheriff's Office budget would be more severe if three commissioners -- Paula DeLaney, Rodney Long and Byerly -- had not tentatively approved property tax rate increases for both the general fund and the Municipal Services Taxing Unit that funds law enforcement.

Discussing the report on the decline in major crime rates on Wednesday, Darnell said, "I'm not going to take one six months worth of reports to lay off deputies."

On the reduction in call loads, she said the Sheriff's Office encompasses more than patrol deputies, and that areas such as the jail, which has a budget of $26.8 million this fiscal year, the Combined Communications Center and courthouse security had to be funded.

To reduce the budget, Darnell has cut overtime and holiday benefits for jail officers -- a move that prompted them to unionize. She acknowledged budget cuts have led to disgruntled employees and could lead to political backlash, but were done to be "fiscally accountable" with taxpayer money.

"I'm sure there are a number of employees who are upset with me and will vote against me." Darnell said Wednesday. "But I was not born a politician. I was drawn to law enforcement ... I'm not going to make decisions based on political ramifications."

Darnell noted that she has brought forth recommendations to bridge a funding gap that her staff now puts at $507,000 and the county Office of Management and Budget has at $597,000. Her staff's proposals have not gained traction with a majority of the County Commission.

Tax Collector Von Fraser said his office will end the fiscal year with $230,000 in excess fees -- money that commissioners could transfer to the Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office has also requested a shift of some money from its MSTU fund, which does not have a shortfall, to the areas covered by the general fund.

Darnell said that nearly $1.2 million of next year's projected costs are from increases beyond her control. There was a state-mandated increase in the retirement contribution for deputies and other employees in the "special risk" class.

Also, there was a County Commission-approved increase in the required contribution for employees' health insurance, which applies to county departments and all constitutional officers. Darnell opposed that increase as a member of the advisory Self Insurance Committee.

Pinkoson said Wednesday he found it "odd" that the PBA withdrew its endorsement, since he "defended" Darnell Tuesday on the issue of increased insurance costs and had said he was open to considering all the funding options she identified.

Responding via email on Wednesday, Chestnut wrote that she continued to "strongly support law enforcement" and "remained committed to the interests of the PBA."

She said she did not want to spend taxpayer money on a dispute over approximately $600,000 out of a budget of more than $65 million but believed Darnell needed to reduce her budget request.

"Alachua County is in a budget deficit ... our decision was prudent and in the best interest of the citizens. I stand by it," Chestnut wrote.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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