Commission struggles with sheriff’s budget

OKEECHOBEE – At their Aug. 13 budget workshop, the Okeechobee County Commissioners came to a consensus to fund a $19.1 million budget for the sheriff’s office for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

The proposed allocation is less than the $20.1 million budget the sheriff requested in July, but more than the OCSO current year’s budget of 18.7 million.

To come up with the $19.1 million, the county will have to dip into reserves.

“Historically in my 33 years with the sheriff’s office, the sheriff’s budget has always been the most contentious because we’re the largest,” said Sheriff Noel Stephen. “I’ve got the most certified people, and I’ve got the only department that operates 24/7,” said the sheriff.

School Resource Officer (SRO) funding falling short from the unfunded mandate from the state affects his department, he said.

The sheriff’s department budget for 2018-2019 was $18.7 million.

He proposed a budget of $20.1 million to include a step increase for employees and cover the cost of the county’s portion of the SROs.

The sheriff said his budget proposal of $20,113,919 million includes $11 million for services that are statutorily the sheriff’s Constitutional responsibility and $9 million for services the State Constitution says are the responsibility of the county.

Sheriff Stephen said he would like to see a starting pay of $40,000 per year for deputies. Since May the sheriff’s department has lost about 15 officers to other departments that offer higher salaries.

“I am losing them still out of road patrol and from the jail,” said the sheriff.

Commissioner Brad Goodbread said he would like to see the pay increased. “Your guys wear a bulletproof vest to work everyday. That is something you should reward,” he said.

The sheriff’s department, including the deputies (road patrol, detectives and SROs), courthouse security, the jail and the animal control officers, has more people than the taxpayers can fund, said Chairman Terry Burroughs.

“As we continue to add to the base number of people, I will never get the law enforcement officers to the $40,000 or the $42,000 that the officer who is out there with the bulletproof vest needs to be,” said Chairman Burroughs.

“We can’t continue to grow (the department) when we don’t have the tax base to do it,” said Chairman Burroughs.

“Maybe we should take the jail back and outsource it. Maybe that’s a way for us to be more efficient. But that’s not an option.

“We can’t continue to build this budget because we’ve got to a point where you’re asking for $20 million and the money’s just not there.”

The sheriff said he knows ad valorem property taxes alone cannot fund the sheriff’s department. He noted increases in homestead exemption mean less money in taxes, and the high percentage of manufactured housing in the county also means a low tax base.

“That’s a continuous snowball that’s going south,” he said. “My duties and responsibilities as sheriff are going up. It’s a funding flaw, I agree. But my department, my men and women are suffering as well as taxpayers, because we chose to support it (the sheriff’s department) from general funds.”

He said the revenue from ad valorem property taxes would fund the law enforcement function, but not the jail.

“We’ve got to change how we do business and take a look at everything. We can’t continue down this rabbit hole, funding from this source,” he said.

“If we want to get bond in order to get the jail, we need to be very conscientious and tight with this budget,” said Commissioner Kelly Owens. “If we can’t get the bond, our only option is referendum, and I don’t see this community supporting a referendum.” She said using money from reserves to balance the budget could jeopardize the county’s ability to obtain a bond.

The county has about $9 million in the landfill trust fund, said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. Previous boards kept a minimum of $8 million in that fund. He said there is no reason to keep that much money in the trust fund.

Chairman Burroughs said there are unmet needs in every area of county government.

The commissioners cannot take official votes at a workshop.

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