Okeechobee City police to help protect schools

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee City Police Department (OCPD) submitted an estimate of the hiring costs for additional officers in regard to the state mandated SB 7026, also known as the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act,” to the City Council on Tuesday evening, April 3. The council then approved the motion to hire and equip two additional officers to OCPD. OCPD is projected to provide officers for both Central Elementary School and the Okeechobee Freshman Campus which are located in the city.

OCPD Chief, Bob Peterson, opened his statements to the council citing SB 7026 which states that, “For the protection and safety of school personnel, property, students, and visitors, each district school board and school district superintendent shall partner with law enforcement agencies to establish or assign one or more safe-school officers at each school facility within the district.”

This includes a Student Resource Officer – a law enforcement officer – from the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office or OCPD, who must now pass a psychological exam; a School Safety Officer which is a school district employed law enforcement officer; or a School Guardian which is armed school personnel approved by the school board and sheriff. While each of the three can be exclusively at each school, a combination of those individuals can be utilized as well to suffice the bill.

Chief Peterson continued, “The sheriff (Noel E. Stephen) and I decided to get together to collaborate on how we could implement a method to provide the best and most cost-efficient service to meet the mandate from the state to ease the burden on the tax payers.

By working together with the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO), we can save tax payers money by not establishing a whole new program on its own. It’s not cost effective to ‘reinvent the wheel.’

“My plan is to provide within this budget estimate, our two schools with City School Resource Officers (SROs) by May 1, pending the approval of the council. That will give the officers three weeks to ‘learn the ropes’ of the SRO detail. It’s imperative to get them going by that date because when the summer comes they will be inundated with law enforcement training and certifications needed to maintain their occupation. These are effectively full-time positions who will be assigned to a school but are still responsible to the city,” Chief Peterson finished.

Okeechobee City Mayor, Dowling R. Watford Jr., then asked Sheriff Stephen who was in attendance at the meeting, “Do you think that a working relationship will be possible?” concerning the integration of the two agencies’ proposed SRO plan.

Sheriff Stephen answered, “It’s been a wonderful relationship that the city and the county have. We have been able to operate smoothly with our cooperative efforts in the Okeechobee Narcotics Task Force. I would also like to thank Chief Peterson and city administrator Marcos Montes De Oca for bringing this on to the agenda for the council.”

OCSO currently has SROs at Okeechobee High School, Okeechobee Freshman Campus, Osceola Middle School, Yearling Middle School and Okeechobee Achievement Academy.

Each of the SROs has been assigned a secondary school.

“The SROs conduct daily security checks at the elementary schools and are on-call if the elementary schools need assistance. For example, the SRO at Osceola Middle School is also available to help South Elementary School, which is across the street,” Sheriff Stephen explained of the current SRO workings. Sheriff Stephen added, “Since the reported shootings in Parkland, I have had zone deputies check on the primary and secondary schools in order to comply with the state mandate.”

Council Member Mike O’Connor inquired about the SROs workings of summer school and after school programs/activities, to which Sheriff Stephen responded, “Whenever students are on campus, outside of school hours, this (SB 7026) mandates that a law enforcement officer is present during the time period. This now obligates our services are provided at to basketball, soccer, volleyball games and after-school activities.”

Sheriff Stephen conveyed that he would like to put SROs on a schedule similar to that of teachers, where they would bank the extra time they spend at school for school activities affording them the ability to take off school holidays and a month every summer. By implementing it this way he believes this would make the job more appealing to the officers. Sheriff Stephen said, “Everyone will be trained and staffed by the 2018-19 school year.”

Chief Peterson concurred with the sheriff, “There is no doubt in my mind that this will work,” speaking in relation to the proposed method of adhering to the mandate handed down by the state.

Just prior to going over the estimated costs, Chief Peterson said, “I have two part-time officers who are ready to go full-time, they just need adequate time to notify their current employers.” OCPD intends on assigning Detective Jack Boon to the Okeechobee Freshman Campus and Officer Kelley Margerum to Central Elementary School. The part-time officers would then become full-time and fill the department’s voids left by Det. Boon and Officer Margerum.

The OCPD estimate gives a breakdown of the additional officer cost into three categories: 1) Cost of Certified Police Officer; 2) Start-up (capital) cost; and 3) Continued annual cost.
Under the Cost of Certified Police Officer section, it lists: Step 1 Salary, $38,905.08; FICA + Benefits, $26,925.63; and Overtime Expenses, $6,730.90. The total for one officer comes out to $72,561.61 and for two officers is doubled to $145,123.21.

The start-up cost includes equipment issued to the individual officers that are needed to perform their daily tasks and functions of the job. Listed are: Vehicle (outfitted with emergency equipment & decals), $23,646; Radio Hardware (mobile & portable), $8,755; Firearms & Taser, $1,765; and Laptop Computer, $1,500. The total start-up cost per officer comes out to $35,666 or $71,332 for two officers.

The last category, continued annual cost includes: Uniforms & Duty Gear, $1,250; Fuel, $2,000; Vehicle Repair & Maintenance, $500; Cell Phone Service (annual), $600; Education (FASRO & Virtual Academy), $1,399; Vehicle depreciation costs, $4,000; and Communications Services (annual), $1,200. Total Annual Costs will be $10,949 for one officer and $21,898 for two.

Out of the 2017-2018 remaining budget, OCPD estimates that it will require $140,924.17 based on officer hire by May 1. The 2018-2019 budget line item will increase to $167,021.21, which is the total between the cost of two certified officers ($145,123.21) and their continued annual cost ($21,898)while excluding the start up cost ($71,332).

City Administrator Montes De Oca said, “We’re looking to cover the state’s mandate.”

Mayor Watford said to all in attendance, “I think we agree that all of us want to protect our children, no matter the cost.” Chief Peterson concluded his statements to the council, “The sheriff is in a horrible position, if we can help him out in any way, we should.”

The state would need $380 million in recurring funds to pay for SROs for every public school in Florida. The state legislature has allocated $160 million with no guarantee of continued funding.

The Lake Okeechobee News is published every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and now includes news from around the lake every Wednesday.

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