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Sheriff Launches "Zero Transparency" Campaign While Demanding Hundreds of Millions from Taxpayers

BROOKSVILLE – A presentation for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office's proposed $300 million Master Plan took place in front of the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday, leaving board members and county residents with more questions than answers.

On Monday, R News "broke" the news of the nearly-year-old plan to rebuild the entire Sheriff's Office, which includes a new jail, shooting range, skid pad, and much more. We emphasize the word "broke" because not a single media outlet has published an article on the multimillion-dollar project or notified the public that they are on the hook to pay for it.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis was expected to be present to answer the board's questions, but he only stopped in for a few minutes before taking his private plane to Tallahassee to speak at an event about "Leadership." Instead, Major Phil Lakin stood in for the Sheriff, along with Hernando County Construction Projects Coordinator Erik Van De Boogaard and Chicago-based Justice Consultant David Bostwick.

The majority of Tuesday's discussion focused on proving the need to move forward with the project sooner than later. Bostwick told the board that the county is forecasted to see a 25% increase in population by the year 2050 and the agency will have to grow to match the increase in calls for service.

During the presentation, the board was shocked to find out that the $300 million project didn't include the cost of more than 30 acres needed to build a new main headquarters, which out of three proposed scenarios is the one Maj. Lakin says is the preferred option. The total cost for the new headquarters could exceed $130 million alone, according to estimates. If the Sheriff gets everything he desires, the total cost to the taxpayer would be closer to $350 million.

To pay for the project, the county is considering a General Bond (GO) or a 1-cent sales tax. A referendum will be placed on the ballot this year if the board decides that a tax increase is the best way to fund the project.

Residents are up in arms over the proposal because Nienhuis never reached out to the media to share details of his plan. The Sheriff's Office uses their social media accounts to provide important information and they even tout "If you want fact-based 'news,' follow our Facebook page." But the agency hasn't mentioned the massive, taxpayer-funded project a single time since it was brought before the board last June. Additionally, the community has been demanding the sheriff implement body cameras to protect both the citizen and the deputy, but he continues to ignore those pleas. Residents say the move is irresponsible, deceitful, and purely political. Michelle Curtis commented on the Adventure Coast Journal Facebook page stating, "ENOUGH WITH HIGHER TAXES, ENOUGH WITH OUR CURRENT SHERIFF‼️ We NEED to SHOW UP at these MEETINGS to voice our DISGUST and let the County Commissioners know THIS IS A HARD NO‼️" Brenda Leigh stated, "Our property taxes went from $2300 to $6500! I'll be damned if I can pay any more to anyone." And Hanss Landa said this about the move, "Crooked as they come... only if the funds were spent correctly, we wouldn't be in this situation we are in. So, no body cams? No radio traffic for citizens (who you are begging to pick up your tab) to watch or hear what's happening in the county. If I'm making any sort of investment, I want to be able to have transparency and watch what my investments are going to and what they do..."

We spoke to NYPD and former Boeing Captain United Airlines Pilot Joe Puglia who said "When I learned of the enormity of the dollar amount that the Sheriff is proposing, I felt compelled to show up Tuesday and hear this with my own ears. I must say, I was not impressed by their lack of preparation for the presentation. There also seems to be a lack of candor as to the fact that the price of 30 acres was not included." Puglia goes on to say, "I've been in several positions of leadership throughout my life. I'm perplexed as to why the CEO/Sheriff would not be here to make his case and justify the spending to the taxpayer. Major Lakin did his best to put lipstick on a pig but fell short." When asked if Puglia would consider a run for Sheriff, he responded, "The position of Sheriff is a tremendous responsibility. I am confident that my life experiences in law enforcement and being a Captain at United Airlines, transporting people around the world safely and serving the public for almost forty years, have certainly prepared me to do so. I know what it is to be responsible to the taxpayers and deliver the service they expect. You never know what the future holds."

Residents say they've lost faith in Sheriff Nienhuis because of his "zero-transparency" policy. The community has been demanding that the Sheriff adopt a body camera (BWC) program for years, but Nienhuis offers the same excuse; "It's not in the budget." But residents aren't buying that excuse anymore because year after year, Nienhuis receives a multimillion-dollar increase to his budget and fails to follow through with his promises. Nienhuis brags about purchasing every state-of-the-art crime-fighting technology available to law enforcement but can't afford an estimated $300,000 per year for a BWC program. Nienhuis says he would rather have more deputies instead of BWCs, but after 13 years of repeating the same excuse, the number of sworn deputies at HCSO hasn't seen a substantial increase at all.

Reinforcing the theory of the Sheriff's "zero-transparency" is the fact that he spent millions to build new radio towers and purchased a high-tech encrypted radio dispatch system to prevent citizens from monitoring public safety dispatch traffic – another program the sheriff pushed through without announcing it to the community. Additionally, the Sheriff ordered his Public Information Office to block anyone who criticizes him on the agency's Facebook page. Through a public records request, R News discovered that HCSO had blocked over 300 people and deleted thousands of comments that were unflattering to the Sheriff. The Supreme Court ruled that a government agency's social media pages are considered "town squares" and it constitutes a violation of the First Amendment to delete comments or block citizens from their page. It should be noted that R News was blocked two years ago from the agency's page, and we never commented at all.

All BOCC members, with the exception of Steve Champion, have enthusiastically supported Nienhuis on every issue. Parroting the Sheriff's debunked mantra of "It's one or the other -more deputies over BWCs" Commissioner Beth Narverud claimed all the deputies she talked to prefer more deputies to BWCs. Commissioner Champion quickly refuted the claim and said he talks to a lot more law enforcement officers than she does at this gun store and most of them have no problem with body cameras. Commissioner Jerry Campbell came prepared with a fact sheet and provided a cherry-picked example of inflated BWC programs out of other counties. He also stated no one had presented any other solutions to the board, which is not true. Tampa Police Department BWC manager Chris Stockton provided a lengthy presentation 2 years ago and estimated that a BWC program with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office would not exceed $300,000 per year – a drop in the bucket compared to the millions spent on other programs.

R News asked Campbell to reach out to his constituents on a public forum and ask what they think about adding a BWC program, but he said "As to your suggestion of going to 'social media' to get 'opinions'. They are just that, opinions, most are not based on data or facts." Essentially telling the voters that their opinions don't matter when it comes to public safety or spending their hard-earned tax dollars.

R News will continue to follow any new developments.


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