The September 26, 2013, Marion County Board of County Commissioners meeting was nothing short of political strong arming. Residents of Marion County witnessed the door to catastrophe opening.
Ocala.com wrote, “Blair conceded.” However, it wasn’t a concession at all. Commissioners gave Sheriff Chris Blair an ultimatum; an ultimatum that Blair was not prepared to live with. The ultimatum was either he accept the same level as the 2012-2013 fiscal year budget OR take nearly $2.3 million less and fire staff.
It is a misconception that Blair challenged the committee to find areas that were able to be cut in order to lower the budget. The committee requested Blair lower the budget and Blair refused. The committee then asked Blair, “Are you going to leave it up to the BCC where to cut the budget?” Blair replied, “You are going to have to. I can’t come back zero. Cannot do it.”
During that same conversation, Commissioner Zalak all but admitted that the previous Sheriff’s Office administration had misallocated funds. Zalak said, “What you want us to do today is increase taxes to fund the misallocation of funds in the past.”
In a document prepared by the Marion County Budget Review Committee, recommendations in regards to the budget were outlined for the Sheriff.
On pages 20-21 of the document, the committee recommended Blair eliminate 21 Sergeant positions, 24 Master Correctional Officers, 94 Corporals, two Assistant Bureau Chiefs, both Chaplains, two Captains, and one Lieutenant. In exchange for laying off a large portion of the veteran staff, the BCC said only a handful could be replaced with officers who held the bare minimum qualifications and certifications legally allowed by the state, therefore allowing the entry level salary. Again, officers with little experience will be the ones watching other officers backs; hence creating a situation bound for disaster.
Pages 22-23 show that the BCC also recommended using monitoring devices on criminals instead of jailing them, citing it would free up funds for Blair’s budget. The mere fact that the Commission was willing to allow criminals to walk free in order to save money, should be enough evidence for the public to realize the Commission does not have any regard for public safety. The Commission cited the monitoring devices have been very successful in other counties. However in the past 45 days several criminals from surrounding counties have cut off their monitoring devices and more than one of the criminals are still on the run. The Commission’s theory on monitoring devices could not be more inaccurate and it would be extremely dangerous for Marion County residents.
Page 25 shows the BCC recommended dismantling the Inmate Work Farm. The Inmate Work Farm forces inmates to grow their own food by seeding it, maintaining it, and harvesting it. The work farm not only produces vegetables, but also eggs and meat. The farm is a tool in which inmates can learn a skill in conjunction with saving the county money by eliminating the need to purchase food from a vendor.
Page 30 shows the BCC putting residents at even more risk by reducing the Emergency Management function. The BCC recommended eliminating staff within the Emergency Management Department, which includes one Major Bureau Chief, a Master Sergeant, and a Special Needs Coordinator. The BCC suggested the county should take over and hire a civilian director at a lower pay scale. Past disasters have shown that Emergency Management Teams are safer and more efficient if run by law enforcement.
Page 35 shows the BCC requested that Blair demote and reduce the salaries for several of the Corporals that operate as Bailiffs. Page 35 also suggests that the county take over Human Resources, Procurement, Information Technology, and Fleet Services which would eliminate 24 full time positions. However, the BCC then informs Blair that they would have to hire more staff if they were to take over the departments.
Page 36 shows the BCC dismantling Community Policing. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, Community Policing is one of the most important aspects of law enforcement. Community Policing should be a priority for every law enforcement agency in the country, according to CJSTC. Community Policing is what builds the foundation between citizens and officers. The BCC suggested to Blair that he lay off 10 Lieutenants, three Captains, and one Major; thus leaving the Community Policing Division dangerously under-staffed.
The BCC wrote, “this places the sheriff’s budget within acceptable parameters as directed by the ‘BCC’.” However, it is reasonably arguable that while the Commission may have experience in budgeting, they have absolutely no knowledge of what it takes to properly and safely run a Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Chris Blair responded to the BCC in a letter, he wrote, “The recommended budget is troubling and reckless.”
Blair also told the Commission that, “The Committee lacked any law enforcement officer with executive experience in administering a law enforcement agency. Had the Commission, or the Committee included such a person, many of the wrongful recommendations of the committee could have been avoided.”
Contained within the stack of documents is a signed letter dated May 28, 2010, from the former sheriff, Ed Dean. The letter indicates that the former sheriff was in fact having budget issues for Fiscal Year 2009-2010 and had proposed not to fill vacancies in order to save money for Fiscal Year 2010-2011. From this document it is more than evident that the Sheriff’s Office was already in trouble prior to Blair’s election.
The prediction is that if the budget is not increased to allow for the hiring of more deputies, Marion County’s crime rates will increase and statistics will be similar to that of Orange County.
The county wants to promote business growth, however with growth comes people and with people comes crime. Marion County is rapidly headed in a direction of becoming the city that will be on the news as Orlando is, and not for good reasons.
With budget constraints effecting the State Attorney’s Office, they are less likely to prosecute smaller cases. Many times petit cases are thrown out and not prosecuted at all, due to lack of resources; thus starting the vicious cycle all over again.
Tina, a Marion Oaks resident said, “How about actually keeping the criminals off the street? If they have been arrested many times for the same offense, that should be a red flag. Lock them up and throw away the key. Who cares if the parents cry foul? Maybe if they were better parents, their kids wouldn’t be criminals.” Tina also said, “I purchased a gun last week, I am not taking any chances, I know where I live and I will not be a victim.”
A deputy told us that useful man power is lost when criminals are released an hour after they are arrested. The deputy said it causes man power to be used because those criminals are likely to be re-offenders. While a deputy is attending to the re-offender, he could have been saving a life across town. All of these issues play a part in the budget it all ties together, he said.
Blair’s letter to Commissioners also warned they were breaking the law by going against Florida statutes that prohibits the Commission from reducing the budget below last years’ budget amount.
County Attorney Guy Minter, told the board that both claims were meritless. However our sources say it is entirely possible for residents to file a lawsuit against the county if in fact residents are in danger because of the lack of deputies. There have been instances in other states where lawsuits have in fact been filed and turned out favorable for residents.
Blair also has the right to take the issue to the Governor’s office, however it is unclear if the deal agreed upon at the September 26, 2013, meeting may now prevent him from doing so.
Blair was granted the hiring of four dispatchers for the communications center, but not without a sigh from Commissioner Zalak. Futhermore, at one point Zalak made a sarcastic joke to Blair, saying, “I like you, so we had to give you something.”
Zalak made it clear he didn’t want the Sheriff’s Office to have an increase in budget or allow the budget to stay at the same level as the previous Fiscal Year. The board wanted to decrease the Sheriff’s Office budget by $2.355.634 million or 3.5 percent and decrease jail funding by $2.488.226 million or 8.5 percent.
“Government should be reduced and government should live within its means,” Zalak said.
At yesterday’s 2 p.m. meeting, Commissioner Bryant said, “I hope next year the sheriff will be more reasonable.”
Marcus, who lives in Marion Oaks said, “I have never in my life seen such a group of despicable self righteous individuals, such as the Marion County Commissioners. The board can sit at their desks with smirks on their faces, their fancy pens, and claim it’s not political until they are blue in the face, but no one is falling for that.” He added, “Of course it’s political, how do you think Dean got to be sheriff the first time around? If you ask me he should have never been sheriff because he had no law enforcement experience.”
Another person said, “It is a sad day when citizens have to step in and beg, literally beg, for the Sheriff Department’s budget to be increased in order to operate properly.”
A resident from Silver Spring Shores said, “What will it take for the board to realize the consequences of not having enough deputies on the street? “Will it take citizens taking matters into their own hands? When it comes down to it, citizens will do whatever it takes to protect their families.” She went on to say, “When the bodies of bad guys start piling up on their front lawns, maybe then the board members will open their eyes. You would think since the father of one of the commissioners had his house broken into and robbed in an area that desperately needs deputies, that commissioners would stand up for the citizens a little more.”
The Commission voted 3-2 and approved raising the levy for the special tax district that funds the Sheriff’s Office’s patrol and investigative operations. The tax applies to property owners in unincorporated Marion County. The Commission raised taxes, but yet they didn’t increase the sheriff’s budget. Instead, they raised taxes for what the Commission is calling an offset in order to keep the Sheriff’s budget, exactly the same as it was. The Commission claims if they didn’t do it this way, then their proposal to lay off 175 full time employees in addition to the 160 that have already been lost since 2007, would have to move forward.
The Commission tied Blair’s hands and backed him into a corner, so to speak.
Even after being bullied by the Commission, Blair kept to his word. Blair told Ocala Post, “I have to protect my deputies. I was not taking a budget cut, laying off deputies, or putting the people of Marion County at risk anymore than they already are. I had to agree to keeping the budget the same, the Commission left me no choice.”