Sheriff’s budget proposal calls for $22 million increase; battle likely

Palm Beach County officials are digging in for another budget battle with Sheriff Ric Bradshaw.

Bradshaw, whose department accounts for more than half of the county’s taxpayer-funded operating expenses, is asking for an additional $22 million to run his office next year.

Bradshaw’s $531.3 million spending plan for the year that starts Oct. 1 represents a 4.3 percent increase over this year’s $509.2 million budget, according to a proposal submitted to the county. He said much of the increase is needed for salaries, higher health care costs and new vehicles.

County budget managers say Bradshaw’s request is actually $32.6 million more than this year’s budget, not $22 million. That’s because Bradshaw’s final budget for the current year includes $10.6 million for vehicles and other capital outlay that are being financed over several years.

“Their position is their needs are only going up $22 million. Our problem is, we need $32 million in taxes to cover (the gap between) what was covered last year and what is proposed,’’ said John Wilson, the county’s budget director.

Regardless of the disagreement, Bradshaw’s requests would absorb just about all of the new revenue anticipated from rising property values.

Early estimates from the property appraiser’s office indicate countywide property values could rise nearly 5.4 percent, which would generate about $30 million in additional property tax revenue for county government.

Bradshaw’s requests would absorb almost all of that. Unless he trims his budget, the county will have limited money for other county priorities such as the revamped Palm Tran Connection bus program for the elderly and disabled that will start up Feb. 1.

“It’s a very challenging budget year,” County Administrator Bob Weisman said.

Word is getting out about the county’s expected tight budget negotiations. The county’s Criminal Justice Commission had planned to ask commissioners on Tuesday for $605,000 next year as the start of a permanent annual allocation for the county’s three drug courts.

But the CJC will probably postpone that request at least another year because of the county’s tight budget, said Michael Rodriguez, the commission’s executive director. “The money’s just not there,’’ Rodriguez said.

County officials hope to hold the line on the current tax rate of $4.78 per $1,000 of taxable property value.

County commissioners set the budget total, but they can’t tell the sheriff how to spend the money. If Bradshaw disputes the amount set by the commission, he can appeal to the Florida Cabinet, which can force the county to pay.

County Commissioner Steven Abrams said he hoped the sheriff would continue to trim his budget proposal as he has done in previous years.

“There’s no doubt there are tough decisions ahead,’’ Abrams said, “but before we get to that usually we have ongoing discussions with the sheriff. The presentation of the budget is always a starting a point.’’

Bradshaw wrote that his budget proposal “reflects the funding required for provision of fundamental and essential services.’’ He added, “The agency has been funded at its functional floor for a considerable period.’’

With increasing service calls, Bradshaw said he will not reduce the number of deputies patrolling the streets. In 2006, the sheriff’s office had 2.46 deputies for every 1,000 service calls.

There are now 1.1 deputies for every 1,000 calls, “well below the national average,’’ Bradshaw wrote. “We continue to do more, with less, and have not asked for additional deputies.’’

Bradshaw said his office will consume about 2.6 million gallons of fuel, which will cost $8.6 million.

Bradshaw’s budget is divided into three major service areas: $360.1 million for general law enforcement, $145 million for the county jails and nearly $26 million for court services and bailiffs.

“The jails continue to be the largest health facilities (physical and mental) in the county, and only through tough negotiations has the cost of inmate medical care been held down,” the budget proposal states.

The county commission will discuss the county’s budget, which includes the sheriff’s proposal, at a workshop in June.

On Tuesday, Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock advised commissioners to set clear spending priorities to help reduce costs. During her annual financial update, Bock said the county spent $41 million more than it made last year.

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