Sheriff Blair’s Editorial Letter on the Budget
Over the past several months there has been much talk about the budget I presented for the 2013-2014 fiscal year on behalf of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. Upon taking office in January, my staff, along with a 70-member committee comprised of individuals from outside the agency, performed a thorough analysis of the state of the Sheriff’s Office. That review uncovered an agency in crisis with deputy sheriff’s that are under-manned, underpaid and ill-equipped to provide the level of law enforcement service our community needs and deserves. As the new Sheriff, my first budget seeks to begin addressing these issues following years of agency decay which is the result of continuous budget cuts that have shaved $8 million dollars and 166 crucial jobs from the Sheriff’s Office since 2007.
Recently, my staff compared our Sheriff’s Office with sheriff’s offices from counties that are comparable to Marion in terms of population and income. That study showed that our agency has more than 50% fewer deputies per 1,000 residents than our comparable counties and needs at least 170 new deputies. This lack of manpower not only jeopardizes the safety of my deputies and the public when backup cannot timely arrive to assist a deputy, or a call cannot be timely responded to, but it also adversely affects the agency’s ability to assist in other public safety functions with the Fire Department. For example, during that last year there have been over 500 calls for assistance to the Fire Department due to either a fire or other emergency which involved some type of domestic disturbance. In those cases, it is Fire’s protocol to stand-by away from the residence until the property can be cleared by a deputy sheriff. However, there have been multiple instances where Fire has had to wait 20-40 minutes for a deputy to arrive to clear the scene due to a lack of deputies. This delay places those victims at further risk and increases liability to the Sheriff, the County Commission, and the taxpayers. My budget only seeks funding for 20 of these needed deputy positions as the first step of a multi-year re-staffing plan.
Furthermore, we are losing, and failing to attract, quality deputies because our starting salary is approximately $9,000 less than comparable counties. In fact, the Sheriff’s Office received minimal interest from graduates of the most recent College of Central Florida police recruit class due to the low starting pay of our deputies. This is unacceptable and, should it be allowed to continue, will reap negative consequences on this community for decades to come. My budget requests funding for an increase in starting deputy pay of $1,300 per year to allow us to attract and hire quality deputy sheriffs.
In addition, our fleet is badly aged due to lack of funding to replace patrol vehicles. In fact, if our agency used the same vehicle replacement scorecard utilized by the County, 43.4% of our vehicles- 245 total – would be replaced due to having more than 150,000 miles on them. My budget requests just 50 new vehicles, however, just this past week I requested the County Commission’s consent to move money that was already budgeted to the Sheriff’s Office for this budget year so that I could purchase 25 new vehicles and thereby lower my budget request for next year, however, the Commission denied that request. Meanwhile, the County’s proposed budget for this upcoming year contains funding for the purchase of $4 million in new County vehicles but the Commission has been unwilling to consent to my request for funding to add any new vehicles for the Sheriff’s Department.
Undoubtedly, this community has been through a significant recession; however, to say that the impact of the recession requires the Sheriff’s Office to continue cutting or flat-lining its budget is misleading. For example, over the past decade the budget for Marion County Fire/EMS has increased at an average annual rate of 17% per year while the budget for the Sheriff’s Office has increased just 1.9% per year on average over that time. In fact, the Sheriff’s Office budget is $6 million less than it was in FY 2006-07, before the recession, while the Fire/EMS budget is $18 million more. While I wholeheartedly endorse the funding for Fire/EMS, I believe that law enforcement deserves the same level of priority from the Commission.
Over the course of the past several years other county departments have also experienced similar, or greater, growth. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office budget has decreased during that same time period from 20% of the overall county budget to just 12.8%. These figures show that over the past several years funding of the Sheriff’s Office has become less of a priority to the County while funding of other county departments have become higher priorities in the overall County budget. The dilution in the Sheriff’s Office percentage of the overall county budget, combined with the increases in the budgets of other county departments, makes clear that it is possible for the County to meet the budget needs of the Sheriff’s Office by reallocating its overall budget, or utilizing a portion of its excessive reserves, to give some priority to law enforcement without raising taxes.
My budget is not a wish list and since taking office I have personally met with each of the five Commissioners to discuss these deficiencies. My commitment will continue to be to protect you and your family by providing top-notch law enforcement within our community and to continue taking criminals off the streets thereby making our community a safer place to live and do business. My budget asks for a small portion of what is needed to move this agency back to a position that this community deserves and I cannot, in good faith, allow my deputies and corrections officers to continue placing their lives on the line each day without doing everything in my power to ensure that they have the resources needed to effectively protect this community and each other.