Leave it to Hernando County government to redefine ethics and the law when it comes to dealing with insiders who get caught with their hands in the taxpayers' cookie jar.
Last September, a longtime employee of the county's department of public works was caught using a county-owned grader to spread county-purchased limerock onto a neighbor's driveway. A county-owned dump truck was used to haul the limerock to the site on Mondon Hill Road, and the employee did the work while on the county's time clock.
A county commission candidate, James Adkins, witnessed the incident and phoned the county ethics hotline Sept. 6 to report it. Mr. Adkins deserves praise from taxpayers for blowing the whistle.
Unfortunately, the county dropped the ball once again in taking appropriate action in what equates to stealing from the taxpayers.
Instead of being fired and turning the case over to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office for possible charges, the employee was suspended for three days without pay.
Shoplifters who get caught utilizing a $5 five-finger discount at Wal-Mart suffer stiffer consequences. It matters not that their intention is to deliver the ill-gotten booty to a friend.
Assistant Public Works Director Steve Whitaker said the employee's "misappropriation" totaled about $279 for use of the equipment and the employee's time.
"It isn't a huge amount of money but the thing is, it's a huge problem with public perception for the public to drive by and see us repairing a driveway, especially when the employee is a neighbor," Mr. Whitaker said.
Most people we know frown on theft from the taxpayers - regardless of the amount. As well, most employers fire workers caught stealing from them. How could they be trusted? Many employers turn the matter over to authorities.
Just because the money comes from the lowly taxpayers, why should county government be any different?
Mr. Whitaker also said he didn't believe there was any way to recover the money lost to the county from the neighbor. Instead, the county recouped the costs from the employee's loss of salary for three days, which amounted to more than $279.
How do you figure?
The employee didn't work. The county got nothing in return for its $279 loss. Not spending money for no work isn't compensation. It won't put the money back in the county's till.
The taxpayers have suffered a loss of at least $279 in this so-called "misappropriation," and we've received nothing in return.
The $279 figure - a felony if considered theft - is an extremely low estimate as well. Seventeen cubic yards of limerock delivered to your home would cost about $325 and that doesn't include spreading it. A private individual could pay upwards of $500 for the job.
But that's beside the point.
With more than 100 employees in the public works department, the punishment should have sent a chilling message to county workers that "misappropriation" of taxpayers dollars would result in the toughest penalties under the law.
That didn't happen.
From our point of view, this slap on the wrist only shows that you can get away with stealing from the taxpayers and the consequence is a five-day weekend.
If that's the price to pay for this "misappropriation," Mr. Whitaker has done little to boost public opinion about his department.
Instead, he's sent the message that county employees are treated differently than the general public and that taxpayer dollars can be squandered with no recourse for recouping them.
A recurrent theme in county government.
Newly hired County Administrator David Hamilton needs to take a close look at this case. It sets a disturbing precedent. A more just determination is in order.