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Updated: 08/11/2017 08:30:05AM

Sheriff, commissioners at odds over budget

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SEBRING — Sheriff Paul Blackman’s budget for fiscal year 2017-18 rose $3.2 million compared to the current year, a 13 percent increase.

It was up to the new sheriff on Tuesday to justify the jump to Highlands County Commissioners, who foot the bill with tax money that is expected to show a $3 million deficit next year.

“We currently have 352 members at the Sheriff’s Office. Of those,” said Blackman, who was elected in January, “99 members are eligible for step raises in fiscal year 2017-18.”

Deputies patrol 1,106 square miles, Blackman said. In 2016, deputies answered 77,172 calls from citizens.

“So far for 2017 we have responded to 55,358,” Blackman said. “Our deputies in 2016 wrote 10,726 offense reports.”

In 2016, deputies stationed at the courthouse moved prisoners and provided security for 26,331 cases. Bailiffs arrested 280 people, and 144,000 walked past the metal detector at the courthouse entrances.

This year, Blackman said, detectives have been assigned 568 cases: four murders, seven attempted homicides and 37 death investigations.

Highlands County Jail has booked 3,516 inmates, Blackman said. “From January to June 2017, we have booked 1,833, so again we are on a pace to surpass 2016 numbers. It is important to note that we do not see this trend reversing; we anticipate higher numbers for 2018.”

The jail houses 455 inmates, Blackman said. Last weekend, the they had 470. “Last year, our daily average population was approximately 425.”

Also, Blackman said the Sheriff’s Office took over Animal Services this year — at the request of the County Commission — at a cost of $681,000. Therefore, the apples-to-apples comparison of FY 18 budget to FY 17 should be $27.1 million to $24.6 million.

“Citizens are continuing to increase their demand for services,” Blackman said. “As a direct result of past budgets, we have become a reactive law enforcement agency. I truly believe your citizens want a proactive law enforcement agency, an agency where we can prevent someone from becoming a victim, as opposed to waiting until they are a victim and then responding.”

Since the Great Recession, the Sheriff’s Office has reduced its budgets. “These budget measures were only temporary, and at some point our budgets will need to reflect the true cost of operating the Sheriff’s Office,” Blackman said.

“We started off $3 million in the hole,” Commission Chairman Don Elwell replied. “We’re currently $2.6 million in the hole. And our revenues didn’t go up anywhere near what we needed.”

But, Elwell noted, the sheriff’s budget “went up a ton.

“And we all understand why. We don’t live in Mayberry anymore,” Elwell said. “The headlines have dialed up. There has never been a greater need for law enforcement. We really implore you folks to find a way to cut everything you can.”

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