City council decides to pursue HCSO interlocal agreement for law enforcement

Several Brooksville residents spoke before the agenda item was addressed at the March 5, 2018 meeting, urging the City Council to keep the Brooksville Police Department (BPD), rather than enter into an interlocal agreement with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) to provide law enforcement services.

The subject has been discussed at length recently, due to Brooksville’s budget problems.

The official discussion was kicked off by Council Member Natalie Kahler at the Monday night meeting, who recounted the Feb. 28 events when staff at the Brooksville Engineering Science and Technology (BEST) Academy reported hearing gunshots. The BEST academy is in the county’s jurisdiction, located near “some of our most dangerous streets,” Kahler said.

Reading from the 911 transcript, Kahler reported that the call came in from BEST at 11:44 AM. At 12:01 PM, according to the dispatch report, the call was “stacked,” meaning that a deputy was on a call, and needed to finish before responding to the school.

“For a school shooting, the average response time is twelve minutes,” Kahler said. “We’re already at fifteen. The officer has been assigned the call, but cannot come.” The HCSO deputy arrived 33 minutes after the initial call to 911. At 12:22 PM, BPD was contacted to assist HCSO, and was on the scene in 76 seconds. Because Brooksville does not have a Mutual Aid Agreement, BPD cannot respond until requested by HCSO. According to BPD Captain Rick Hankins, because all law enforcement units knew of the 911 call, BPD officers drove to, and waited on Martin Luther King Drive, to await formal dispatch.

“I am not trying to create an emotional environment,” Kahler said, “This is about facts, and what we’re doing is choosing a level of service that we are OK with.”

At 3:18 the same day, another 911 call was placed, reporting five gunshots. HCSO arrived in seven minutes, BPD arriving four minutes after they were dispatched.

Nothing in the report indicated that bullets were fired into the school, or that any students were harmed.

The next Council Member to speak on the issue was Joe Bernardini, who began by addressing the recent subject of ending the city’s charter if the police department is disbanded. “I don’t believe that. There are cities that don’t have police departments, that don’t have fire departments, that are still viable cities.” Bernardini went on to say that the subject of disbanding the city has not been considered by the council, and has only been mentioned during citizen’s comments. “I would never vote to disband the city.”

It’s been eight months since Brooksville’s budget issues became a frequent meeting topic. In the beginning, Kahler suggested three remedies; raise taxes and/or fees (or create new ones), cut services, or be creative in how services are offered. Bernardini recounted the three possibilities, acknowledging that ad-valorem taxes have been raised. Fire assessments have also been increased. Increasing water and sewer rates will be up for a vote in the near future.

“Getting creative … is where we’re at now,” said Bernardini. “I can’t tell you I’d vote for a contract with the sheriff’s department until I see the final contract.” He went on to say he would not vote for a contract that did not protect current BPD employees, with the exception of command staff, who would be redundant at HCSO.

Mayor Betty Erhard told the community in attendance that their input and opinions are valued. “I agree with councilwoman Kahler, I never want to compromise public safety. However, as council people, we have a fiduciary responsibility to 8,000 citizens … and 700 businesses, that we also have to look out for.”

Erhard also reviewed her recommendations to restructure BPD in the last eight months, which included saving approximately $58,000 by eliminating accreditation. Eliminating uniform allowances, and not filling vacancies were also among Erhard’s suggestions to trim the BPD budget. She reported that BPD Chief George Turner was directed to “propose a savings … for the Feb. 26 Workshop.” Turner, however, was not present at the meeting.

City Manager Mark Kutney and Mayor Erhard took a look at the city of Bushnell, who disbanded their police department in 2012. According to Kutney, Bushnell’s Financial Director and Interim City Manager Jodi Young reports that the city is thriving and is seeing more revenue. Kutney also said that there were also resident concerns (in 2012) about the change, but to date, no significant problems were reported. Jodi Young is a Brooksville resident.

Also addressing the “are we still a city” issue, Vice Mayor Robert Battista spoke about his visit with officials from Inverness and Crystal River. “They don’t hang their head in shame,” Battista said, of the two cities, who have not had their own police departments for at least ten years. In considering an interlocal agreement with HCSO, Battista said, “The process that we’d be willing to go along with, would be one that provides the same level of service, i.e. ‘response times’ that we get from Brooksville PD, inside the city limits.”

Social media has been mentioned by more than one of the council members in the past few months, particularly regarding this subject. Battista said, “Social media has not been fair in this issue to all concerned.” Battista reported that he’s received several communications that “show that people are not being told the truth somewhere. It’s either social media, or on the street,” and encouraged the public to watch the recorded meetings online.

“We’ve gone through all the levels that we can to produce revenues, so we can take a good look at the future, and where we’re going to be.” Battista went on to say that according to correspondence so far, most BPD officers could be hired by HCSO, and Brooksville could see a savings of $1.7 million. According to Battista, “Those monies could in reality lower our millage down below 5 … and still have almost a million dollars for projects. That’s very significant for this little city.”

Council Member William Kemerer stated he is also not in the group who believes the city will be or should be dissolved, and believes it is indicative of the “frustration level of some citizens over how their tax dollars are being used.”

A little over three hours into the four-hour meeting, the vote to pursue an interlocal agreement with HCSO passed 4-1, with Kahler being the dissenting vote. The Hernando Sun will continue to follow developments.

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