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Sheriff proposes $11 million hike in record budget

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of May 26, 2022)

County commissioners would need to raise taxes – or reduce funding to other agencies and departments – to cover the $71 million budget proposed by Sheriff Eric Flowers for fiscal 2022-23, unless property-tax revenues are significantly higher than projected.

Flowers’ 13-page proposal, which he submitted to County Administrator Jason Brown earlier this month, seeks an 18.27-percent increase over his current $60 million budget.  Percentage-wise, it’s the largest jump in at least 20 years.

Most of the $11 million increase Flowers is seeking would go toward salaries and overtime ($4.1 million), operating expenses ($4 million), and equipment, furniture and maintenance ($2.75 million.)

Flowers, who took office in January 2021, also wants to add 35 full-time employees to his 519-member agency.

“If the tax-roll revenues were to go up 7 percent – that’s the number we’re using for planning purposes, based on the information we have – we can expect our revenues to increase by about $5.5 million,” Brown said.

“The sheriff is asking for an $11 million increase,” he added. “So unless the revenues increase considerably more than we’re projecting, I don’t know where that additional money would come from.”

County officials use the tax rolls from the previous calendar year when putting together the next fiscal year’s budget. That means Brown’s staff will rely on the 2021 tax roll to build the county’s fiscal 2022-23 budget.

County Property Appraiser Wesley Davis will provide Brown with a preliminary tax roll on June 1, with the final tax roll coming a month later.

Davis described Brown’s projection of a 7-percent increase as being “on the conservative side,” adding that he’s “very comfortable” with using that number in the planning phase of the process.

“It’ll be at least 7 percent,” Davis said. “If I had to guess, I’d say it will be somewhere between 7 and 10 percent, probably closer to a double-digit number. For sure, it’s not going to be less than 7 percent.”

Although local home prices have skyrocketed the past two years as the COVID-19 pandemic made the county’s low-density development and relaxed quality of life even more attractive, Florida’s homestead exemption and Save Our Homes legislation prevented property taxes from increasing at a similar rate.

The homestead exemption reduces the taxable value of a primary residence by as much as $50,000. The Save Our Homes amendment, which took effect in 1995, limits the annual increase in the assessed value of homesteaded properties to 3 percent or the change in the national Consumer Price Index, whichever is less.

Davis said the increases this year will be limited to 3 percent, which, he added, “isn’t anywhere near the increases in market value that we’ve seen here.”

In addition, some of the value assessments Davis’ office will provide to the county this summer will be 18 months old, while home prices have continued to rise.

“The craziness is still going on,” he said.

Even if Brown’s 7-percent projection is low, the increase in property-tax revenues would need to double to fully fund Flowers’ proposed budget for his law enforcement ($46.5 million), corrections ($21.6 million) and courthouse-services ($2.8 million) divisions.

A state law passed enacted in April gives Florida’s sheriffs greater autonomy over their budgets, allowing them to shift funds – particularly during emergencies – without first getting approval from their county commissions.

“The Legislature decided that it’s not the job of county commissioners to micro-manage the sheriff’s budget,” Brown said. “The sheriff will get whatever funds are budgeted, and then he can do what he wants with them.”

So how much will Flowers get?

Brown said he and the county’s budget director, Kristin Daniels, will meet with Flowers and the Sheriff’s Office’s chief financial officer, Aimee Cooper, to discuss the agency’s budget proposal.

“We take a look at it, see where the increases are, allow him to make his case and then make an evaluation,” Brown said. “Once we do that, I’ll make my recommendation. It might be the requested amount. It might be less.

“The county is growing, and there are increased demands that come with an increased population and increased activity,” he added. “I understand we need to invest in public safety, and the cost of inflation is impacting everybody these days.

“In the past, the commissioners and the sheriff have frequently arrived at a compromise.”

County Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan said he hopes Brown and Flowers can find common ground while discussing the sheriff’s budget proposal, adding that the commissioners generally prefer to avoid tax increases and wouldn’t approve one “specifically for the sheriff.”

However, O’Bryan said inflation, rising gasoline prices and the cost of retaining employees is a concern.

“We’ve got a lot to fund in this county, and costs keep going up,” he said. “If property-tax revenues increase only $5.5 million, we’re going to need to take an even harder look at all of the funding requests.

“The constitutional officers make up nearly 75 percent of our total budget, which doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for our departments,” he added, “and the sheriff has the largest budget of the constitutional officers – by far.

“We’re not going to cut everybody else just to fund the sheriff.”

O’Bryan said the commissioners were tough on Flowers’ predecessor, Deryl Loar, who began his three-term run as sheriff in 2009, during the worst of the Great Recession.

He said Loar fought hard for his proposed budgets, but when the revenue-challenged commissioners refused to budge, he accepted their decisions, even when it meant reductions.

“More times than not, we were able to come to an agreement,” O’Bryan said. “But there were times when it got a little heated.”

Might that happen this year?

Brown said he’s eager to see the preliminary tax-roll numbers, which Davis will provide next week, and meet with the sheriff so he can evaluate Flowers’ proposed budget and make his recommendation to the commissioners.

“The commissioners typically dig into it and do their homework,” Brown said. “They’ll be ready.”

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Debbie Carson did not respond to Vero Beach 32963’s multiple requests to speak with Flowers or a member of his command staff about the specifics of the agency’s budget proposal and reasons such an increase is needed.

As recently as fiscal 2012-13 – the last of four consecutive years of budget reductions during the recession – the Sheriff’s Office operated with a budget of $37.8 million.

The agency’s budget has increased annually since, as the county’s population has grown from 139,000 to more than 160,000 today, and surpassed the $50 million mark for the first time in 2018-19, when Loar was given a $51.9 million budget.

A chart provided by Brown shows that, since fiscal 2012-13, the Sheriff’s budget has increased at a faster rate than the county’s population.