Ocala, Florida — The Marion County Board of County Commissioners once again gave Marion County Sheriff, Chris Blair, an ultimatum in reducing his budget during a hearing held on September 11, 2014, while Commissioner Carl Zalak leaned back in his chair and mocked public safety issues.
Commissioners Carl Zalak and Stan McClain were heard several times laughing during the public safety portion of the hearing.
At one point in the attached video, McClain raises his voice and compares the situation with the sheriff’s office to Marion County Fire Rescue by stating he has had the same exact conversation about the budget with the fire chief.
During the September 11 hearing, Zalak told Sheriff Blair if he did not come to the upcoming September 25, 2014, final budget hearing with a flat budget, the BOCC would do it for him.
The current year adopted budget for FY2013-2014 is $67,053,024. The budget the Board of County Commissioners is proposing for the sheriff for FY201-2015 is $66,583,601. That is a reduction of ($469,423) at the direction of the BOCC.
Despite the Marion County Sheriff’s Office only being 13 percent of the county’s overall budget, commissioners are forcing the sheriff’s office to shoulder the brunt of the budget cuts.
The BOCC has told all other departments to come back flat; however, they are actually decreasing the budget of the sheriff’s office.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office was blindsided by the BOCC at the September 11 hearing when board members attempted to cut the sheriff’s office expenditures by $694,000 without Sheriff Blair’s knowledge.
Citizens have stated many times they feel the public hearings are a waste of time, and that public comments fall on deaf ears.
During last Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner McClain proved Marion County citizens’ fear when Sheriff Blair asked for more time after being blindsided, and McClain blurted out, “I am not going to change my mind, Sheriff, personally, so.”
Later in the video, Zalak disrespectfully addressed the sheriff as BOSS.
Fine & Forfeiture Fund
The Fine & Forfeiture Fund provides the monies for the Sheriff’s Regular Budget and Bailiff Budget. At the budget hearing last week, Commissioner Zalak and County Administrator Lee Niblock told Sheriff Blair he was spending all of the reserves from the Fine & Forfeiture Fund.
Jerry Holland, Marion County Sheriff’s Office Support Services Bureau Chief, said there is a problem with this statement:
“The sheriff submits his budget to the county commission for approval. Once they adopt the budget, it is the commission’s responsibility to decide how it is funded. The sheriff’s budget was approved last year and it was the commission’s decision to fund his budget using a mixture of ad valorem taxes and Fund Balance Carry Forward (or reserves as they called it). Now that the BOCC has used up the reserves, only a minimum amount is available, so they are telling the sheriff that they are not raising the millage rate to properly fund his budget and he must cut his budget because he has spent all of the reserves in the Fine & Forfeiture Fund. That is not a true statement. The BOCC chose to use reserves, not the sheriff. The sheriff had no say in how his budget would be funded by the county, he simply made his request for it to be approved and funded. Some may see this as a good thing since taxes will not be raised, however, a logical person can see it is a bad idea because of what is happening now.”
The BOCC has chosen to cut budgets instead of raising taxes. Their decision to cut the sheriff’s budget has affected public safety in a very negative way.
Since August 22, 2014, the average response time for a deputy to respond to a call for service increased from 11 minutes to 17 minutes. This was the average response time for 185 calls.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, an acceptable response time would be approximately six (6) to six and a half minutes (6.5).
Sheriff Blair said, “Someone is seriously going to get hurt. One of my deputies is seriously going to get hurt.”
Sheriff Blair went on to say he did not think Marion County citizens are receiving the attention they deserve.
Over the last couple of years, the sheriff has received the same level (dollar amount) of funding. However, there have been increases in things like health insurance, Florida Retirement System contributions, fuel costs, etc.
The long-term effects of the inadequate funding are many. By not receiving more funding, Sheriff Blair has had to hold open some of his vacancies in order to build up monies to cover the above-mentioned additional expenses. This magnifies a couple of issues.
He already has staffing shortages, but he cannot fill some of his existing positions due to the aforementioned reasons. He cannot “fix” the salary problem, which also affects his ability to hire qualified applicants.
MCSO recently had a salary study done that shows the sheriff’s employees (across the board) are 20 percent below in pay to comparable sheriff’s offices. Sheriff Blair does not have the funding to correct it. He also does not have funding to replace normal capital outlay items (e.g., vehicles, equipment, and computers). There are currently no monies in his budget for normal replacement of these items. Although Sheriff Blair has obtained some new vehicles since he took office (The department purchased over 30 patrol vehicles and is leasing about 20 undercover vehicles.), they have not been replaced on schedule since 2007. Typically, MCSO would need to replace about 50 vehicles per year for about five years to catch up.
“All county (except those under union contract or collective bargaining) and constitutional officer employees received funding for three (3) percent raises for the upcoming budget year, but not for all sheriff’s office employees,” Holland said.
The BOCC does not want to give raises to those in fields of public safety, yet the public information officers for the BOCC are getting substantial raises.
In the video, Commissioner Earl Arnett tried to convince Sheriff Blair to eliminate ten (10) positions that are funded by a grant and take those deputies to fill other vacant position. Sheriff Blair said, “You can’t keep taking positions and sending the money down the road.”
Citizens of Marion County have accused the BOCC many times of “kicking the can down the road.”
After Sheriff Blair refused, Zalak asked why it was not a good idea.
After much investigation, Ocala Post found out that Arnett’s idea is exactly how the BOCC conducts business.
According to public records, the BOCC deletes one vacant position, and then uses the money from the deleted position to fund substantial raises for filled positions. The BOCC calls it a “reclass.”
The BOCC recently “reclassed” two of its public information officers. One PIO salary went from $54,184.75 to $58,616.99, an increase of $4,432.24. The other from $61,001.73 to $66,614.30, an increase of $5,612.57. The raises total $10,044.81 — a lot more than three (3) percent.
One of the PIO is reportedly a family member of McClain. A reasonable person could draw the conclusion that it is a conflict of interest for McClain to be involved. And while the BOCC will try to say it is not finalized until the September 25, 2014, meeting; it has clearly been printed in black and white.
Some residents have asked when the last time one of the BOCC’s PIOs has ever been on TV or spoke on behalf of a commissioner.
McClain and Zalak have been quick to avoid raises for public safety as a whole, which includes Marion County Fire Rescue as well as the sheriff’s office.
In the video, Zalak tells the sheriff they are giving him $1 million, but in actuality, Holland said Blair would only see $320,620 of that. “At the beginning of the budget discussion earlier this year, this number was set at $197, 073,” Holland said. “It is important that the public know the facts and not just what the commission wants them to hear.”
Residents at last Thursday’s meeting said McClain’s and Zalak’s true colors came out that night.
McClain stated that the sheriff’s office received $7.4 million more last year than the year before. What McCalin did not announce in front of the public was there was a deficit of $4.5 million created by former Sheriff Ed Dean that had to be paid out of that money.
At one point Zalak interrupted the sheriff and said, “There ain’t no such thing as fair. I can promise you that.”
Even more troubling, is the fact that McClain was laughing while telling the sheriff how to manage his budget.
McClain is in charge of managing the countywide budget of more than $500 million; however, according to Federal Bankruptcy Court records, [he] cannot even manage his own personal finances. McClain filed for bankruptcy in 2007; wiping out a substantial amount of debt. In 2013, Capital One Bank filed a lawsuit against McClain in which the default final judgment was issued in December of 2013. McClain is also currently in the middle of foreclosure proceedings on a home valued at more than $250,000.
Prior to filing bankruptcy, McClain purchased a $16,000 vehicle in which he only made payments for $1,117.53 within 90 days of filing bankruptcy. McClain reaffirmed the debt with Citi Financial, which legally allowed him to exclude it from bankruptcy.
At the time of his bankruptcy, he also owed the IRS $5,000.
Many residents have also expressed concerns over the $20 million landfill deal the BOCC is involved with, namely because Zalak is in the waste services business. He is listed as the VP of C & C Recycling of Central Florida, Inc., which is also tied in with Busy Bee Waste Services.
McClain and Zalak also accused the sheriff of wanting to excessively tax property owners. However, in 2013, the sheriff requested the half-cent sales tax for a term of three years that would have solved the budget problem. Something that many counties have done and continue to do. The commissioners dragged their feet on the proposed plan and by the time they realized the half-cent sales tax would correct budget issues, it was too late.
According to the sheriff’s office, the BOCC also hounded the sheriff for a five-year plan to be drawn up. Even after presenting it to the BOCC, they have not touched it.
In an e-mail to Ocala Post, an unnamed Marion County firefighter asked, “Why is a man that has trouble managing his personal debt in charge of my raises? Why is he in charge of anything to do with budgeting?”
Another firefighter with MCFR told Ocala Post that he makes less than $10.00 an hour. “It’s not fair, but according to Zalak, nothing is fair,” he said. “By bank standards, McClain could not even qualify to be a bonded armed guard. Why is he managing the county budget?”
The firefighters asked to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation, namely from Zalak.
Sheriff Blair said he is also worried about the COPS grant. The COPS grant is the aforementioned 10 positions the BOCC suggested Sheriff Blair eliminate.
“The COPS grant was a contract the commission broke by federal standards which could cause our sheriff’s office in the future to not be able to receive any additional grants as it relates to adding deputy sheriffs through federal funding. The ten deputies were kept through year-end monies last year. We will wait and see if the commission picks them up as they are in our five-year-plan. My concern is that McClain requested I move my air and warrant units from Fine and Forfeiture to MSTU and he would increase the millage rate to cover the cost. We made the move and he then, as of last Thursday refused to fund those units to the tune of approximately $1.5 million. At this time there is no funding for those units both for personnel and operation of the aircraft’s.”
By Florida law, the sheriff’s office can take this matter to the governor’s office if they feel commissioners are mishandling funding.
Citizens will now have to wait for the outcome of the September 25 hearing.
At the request of citizens through multiple e-mails to Ocala Post, the following video has been shortened. In the video, residents who have not seen the video will see McClain and Zalak disrespect MCFR, Marion County citizens, and the sheriff’s office. Citizens can also see how McClain dismissed the fact that Sheriff Blair wants deputies to be placed in elementary schools.
Important sections of the video: