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Columbia County 5 Facing a $50,000,000 Public Safety Crisis: Sheriff Mark Hunter Stands Up

Posted May 28, 2014  11:10 am | (4 comments)

Sheriff Hunter was all business yesterday as he addressed The 5.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Yesterday morning's marathon budget workshop lasted almost 4 hours. The legendary Columbia County 5, The 5, have run Columbia County for decades from the back rooms using the public's money as private buckets of cash to curry favors, take care of its friends, and pick the pockets of the taxpayers. The 5 is finally beginning to hear the music as it is faced with public safety issues which will cost in the neighborhood of $50,000,000 to fix. Sheriff Mark Hunter admitted that he is bleeding experienced road deputies, has other staffing issues, and needs a new jail.

Three hours after the meeting was gaveled to order, Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter came to the microphone. The Sheriff's budget is approximately 50% of the general revenue appropriation of the County.

Sheriff Hunter told The 5, "It's budget time. That's about the only time we have discussion. The Commission has their priorities and the Sheriff's Office has their priorities and a lot of times they don't mesh; most of the time they don’t."

Sheriff Hunter told The 5, "Over the last 5 years we've come through tough times. The Sheriff's Office has done their part. In 2010-11 we took 39% of the budget cut for the County."

Speaking to long-time county commissioner and County 5 Chairman, Ronald Williams, the Sheriff said, "When you say the County's always took the brunt of it – well, it ain't been in the last five years."

Experienced deputies leaving

Sheriff Hunter said, "I can't keep operating with what I've got. I've been patient; I'm losing people. My experience on the road is three years. When I first came into office it was six years. You all don't understand the impact of that."

The County Jail: Bleeding

After Florida's economy imploded in 2008 state wide salary increases were frozen. Beginning last year, the State has begun giving out salary increases, while The 5 have been stuck in the ways of the past, giving out salary bonuses instead of real raises. The 5 took care of the chosen few, leaving most County workers out in the cold and out of luck.

Sheriff Hunter told The 5, "I can't compete with the State anymore. They gave a 5% raise last year and they're doing another five this year. I'm losing people left and right. I'm down seven people. We've had several incidents out there."

Pulling deputies off patrol

"I'm at the point right now that I am having to pull people from the road that are dual certified to come out there [the jail] and cover shifts for me. I can't continue to operate like this."

The Sheriff asked if The 5 had heard any complaints about the Sheriff's Office.

Chairman Williams, in the one light spot in the conversation, smiled and without going into details told the Sheriff, "Nobody's perfect."

The Sheriff doesn't have to run the jail. The County can.

Sheriff Hunter listens to the County Manager.

Sheriff Hunter told The 5, "I'm taking the liability and responsibility off of you guys operating the jail. I don't think you understand the total package of liability that goes with the jail."

He continued, "I can't continue to operate the Sheriff's Office and maintain the local service at the status quo."

The Sheriff told The 5 he will submit his budget on Friday. He will be asking for an across the board 5% increase. He said, "If I can't get that I will remand the jail back to you, the County Commission. I'll take the law enforcement and the judicial division and you guys can take on the brunt of the jail."

Chairman Williams asked, "How long are you going to give the County to take it over?"

Sheriff Hunter answered, "October one. We'll start with the new budget year. I think that's fair."

He explained, "We're losing people. I am not able to attract applicants that we want to have working with us at the detention facility. I don't know what else to do... I need you to look at this. We're at critical mass now at the Sheriff's Office."

County Manager Dale Williams weighs in
Sheriff stands his ground

County Manager Dale Williams told The 5 to prepare an RFP post haste.

County Manager Dale Williams asked the Sheriff again about the 5% increase he was requesting. The County Manager wanted to know if the Sheriff didn't get it if he was going to ask The 5 to take over the jail.

Sheriff Hunter didn't waver, "Yes sir."

County Manager Williams suggested that The 5 immediately prepare an RFP (Request for Proposals) for a company to come in and operate the jail.

County Manager Williams opined that he didn't think it was a good idea for The 5 to run the jail. He explained that if the running of the jail went to an outside contractor the expenses above and beyond what the Sheriff spends now would come out of the Sheriff's budget.

County Manager Williams said, "This is just going to exacerbate the situation."

Jail Capacity

Sheriff Hunter spoke about the jail capacity. "Our calculation, count for the jail, is around 255. We can take some measures in hand to be able to run at a higher capacity, but it's not optimal and you can get into some guidelines -- liabilities -- by doing that for an extended period of time... Last night our count was 269, and I see we were able to get it down there for a couple of years, but it's startin' creep back up on us again."

The Sheriff added that the County needed a 500 bed facility and that he has had as many as 300 inmates in the jail.


Sheriff Hunter has stated that the communications system needs replacement. The cost of that has been estimated at $18,000,000.

A new jail is expected to cost between $30 and $35 million.

Raises and other costs involved in those raises will be approximately another $1,000,000.

The total cost of the public safety issues concerning the Sheriff's office are about $50,000,000.

Columbia County's long held bucket theory of economics may have worked when the county was goat trails and dirt roads, but in the modern world Columbia County and The 5 have some catching up to do.

Updated on Sept. 26, 2018: replaced Sheriff's jail capacity remarks from summary account to direct quote.


Comments  (to add a comment go here) 

On May 31, 2014, Iaan wrote:

Don't forget that the county voted to do away with the county ems service and the private company that took over puts inner facility revenue generating calls over the citizens and the 911 service. The only ones who suffer from that terribly wrong and disastrous decision are the residents.


On May 30, 2014, retired CCSO Deputy, Mike Gorden wrote:

Sheriff Mark Hunter is to be commended for taking a strong stand regarding the public's safety. CCSO law enforcement officers are grossly underpaid compared to their peers in surrounding counties. We continue to lose experienced officers as a result. The CCSO clearance rate for solving crimes is exceptionally high, and the Board of County Commissioners ("The Board") needs to act now if they want to retain professional public safety personnel. "You get what you pay for" certainly applies here. If we the citizens want quality services, reasonable wages are a must.

The Board sadly controls the budgetary fate of our Sheriff and his staff of professionals. The 5 has a history of squandering money and of breaking promises, (think Bascom-Norris connector road project, promised to be completed "well before" 2012 and originally billed as a $6-11 million project; it remains incomplete and has cost well over $20 million). I could also cite the pursuit of the ill-advised Civic Center, and other examples of poor decisions and "follies of The 5".

Do you recall that $4 million in taxes had been collected and set aside for a new jail (under the prior sheriff), which The 5 then chose to spend elsewhere? The Board giveth and The Board taketh away... from public safety that is.

Editor's note: Mike Gordon was head of Internal Affairs for the CCSO.


On May 29, 2014 GS of Columbia County wrote:

I always wondered why other counties can give raises but the so called 5 always responds that the county can't afford it, but they always have money to give themselves raises. You would think that  intelligent people would recognize that  you can't keep quality people if you don't pay them what they are worth. The citizens of Columbia county deserve to have the best sheriff's office and we have some of the best, but we are going to keep losing them if we don't pay them.


On May 29, 2014, JW of Columbia County wrote:

The people should know how short the EMS coverage and fire department is. How many times is there no ambulance available to anyone in the county due to all of them being in service. Something has to give and it's going to be the voters who make it happen!


This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.


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