Commissioners focus on law enforcement and election security

The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office will add four new deputies this fall. The additions were part of annual budget Sheriff Bill Farmer and Deputy Chief Chris Haworth presented to county commissioners Wednesday.

A tentative $265 million budget for fiscal-year 2021-22 is moving forward for Sumter County, commissioners agreed on Wednesday.

On the second day of budget workshops, the board reviewed requests from the county tax collector, clerk of circuit courts, supervisor of elections, property appraiser and Sumter County Sheriff’s Office.

It includes a 1.3% pay increase for county employees and adds two more law enforcement officers, a school resource officer and a corrections officer.

“I think you can safely say this board is pro-law enforcement,” said Commission Chairman Garry Breeden. “We understand in this day and age how difficult it is to get and keep personnel with the atmosphere that has been created in this country.”

Commissioner Doug Gilpin praised the performance of the sheriff’s office, which saw the crime rate drop 18.3% in 2020, one of the biggest decreases in the state, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“Here in Sumter County people know they are safe,” Gilpin said. “You guys have adjusted to the growth year after year and that safety factor never went away. Nobody wants to move to some place they don’t feel safe. The record shows what has happened here.”

Property appraiser Joey Hooten asked for three more employees to keep up with the county’s growth.

He reported overall taxable value in the county now surpasses $14 billion, an increase of about $1.2 billion since 2020. New construction from the past year contributes about $743 million to that number.

 “Since I took office, the tax roll has doubled in nine years,” he said.

Tax Collector Randy Mask and Clerk of Circuit Courts Gloria Hayward did not ask to add positions but are working to fill open jobs.

“We’ve lost 11 folks since January,” Mask said. “But we’ve been successful in continuing to provide services and meet the demands of the citizens.”

Hayward said her office also has been operating short-handed.

“We were open full time during the pandemic,” she said. “We’ve been struggling along. We’ve lost 11 people, but we are continuing to serve the public. If people would just come back to work, that would be awesome.”

Supervisor of Elections Bill Keen did not request staff additions this year, but said he expects to add four precincts and one early voting site in the 2022 November election (the county budget runs from Oct. 1, 2021 to Oct. 1, 2022).

Keen said the internet technology support provided by the county through its contract with The Villages Technology Services Group has been beneficial in providing increased security.

“Security is a hot topic,” he said. “We just try to stay in front of it every day.”

Gilpin said the public-private partnership is working as planned.

“Your office was one of the leaders in partnering with the county to enjoy those savings and the extra knowledge and experience that comes with working with a professional company,” he said.

The tentative budget is supported by a property tax rate of $6.24 per $1,000 of assessed value, a 3% decrease from the current rate. Commissioners may later lower, but not increase, the tentative rate during the budget process.

The final budget will be approved following two public hearings in September.

Specialty Editor Keith Pearlman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5347, or keith.pearlman@thevillagesmedia.com.