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Marathon County 5 Meeting: Building Relationships With City - Reigning in the Sheriff

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Yesterday, Feb. 21, the County 5 met for five hours in a marathon workshop/special meeting. Other than a break for lunch, The 5 took no breaks. A major portion of the meeting dealt with issues concerning Sheriff Mark Hunter: a) the location of the County back-up 911 center – Sheriff Hunter wanted it at the proposed, but unapproved and unbuilt new jail; b) the March 27, 2015 Interlocal Agreement between the County and Sheriff Hunter – The County 5 (4-1) wanted to cancel the agreement, the Sheriff wanted it maintained. The agreement automatically gives Sheriff Hunter 39% of the ad valorem taxes of the County and other revenues.

Background: 911 Call Center & Backup

Commissioner Ron Williams
Dist. 1 Com. Ron Williams listens to the Sheriff.

In October 2007, Columbia County received what is known as the Kimball report. This report, prepared by L. Robert Kimball & Associates, assessed the condition of the County's 911 call center. The report was a disaster for the County. It told the truth. It focused on the management of the County's emergency communications center. Shortly after receiving the report the County found a consultant that would prepare a report more toward the County's liking. Kimball was given the ax.

The severity of the issues identified in the Kimball report was significant. It pointed out deficiencies in critical areas of emergency communications management, such as: governance; leadership; morale; training and quality assurance; and the lack of a backup center.

Commissioner Rocky Ford
Dist. 2 Com. Rocky Ford listens to the Sheriff.

In 2013, after County/City relations went into meltdown, the agreement to put the County backup 911 in the City Public Safety Building went up in smoke. Unknown to the public, the Sheriff had decided to put the 911 emergency backup center in a utility trailer, which was housed at the jail. After the 911 system went down, the Sheriff couldn't' fire up the backup system.

A brief history of Columbia County's 911 and backup communication woes can be found here: Columbia County Florida: 911 goes down; County covers up, and here: Columbia County/Lake City Combined 911 Communications Center: Going the way of the Titanic?

Commissioner Bucky Nash
Dist. 3 Com Bucky Nash listens to the Sheriff.

After the recent changing of the guard in the City, a new city manager and councilman, and the county, two new county commissioners and a change of heart by long time commissioner, Ronald Williams, who is now a big time proponent of cooperation, the City is willing house the County 911 backup in its hardened police headquarters, as it was originally planned in 2010. See: Backup PSAP

Sheriff Hunter was not happy and instead wanted the backup center to be in the yet unbuilt jail.

Yesterday, the Sheriff tried to convince the County 5 his was the best idea.

Todd Manning, Tom Brazil, Sheriff Mark Hunter
IT Chief Todd Manning (left), 911 Chief Tom Brazil (center), Sheriff Mark Hunter

The County's IT Chief, Todd Manning, and the County's 911 Call Center Director Tom Brazil, spoke about the advantages of going with the City location, although they didn't want to make a recommendation, instead presenting their facts and reasoning to The 5 and leaving the decision up to them.

On a 5-0 vote, The 5 voted to cooperate with the City and house the 911 backup with them.

The Next Big Issue
Percent Based Budgeting

Commissioner Toby Witt
Dist. 4 Com. Toby Witt listens to the Sheriff.

In March 2015, Columbia County and Sheriff Mark Hunter made history when Columbia County was the first and only county in the history of Florida to approve Percent Based Budgeting for its sheriff.

The agreement, between the County and the Sheriff guaranteed the Sheriff the right to take a piece of every non-restricted revenue source in the County; gave him a reserve fund of $1.3 mil; and said that he would run the County Jail, which was already a County Ordinance. The agreement was prepared by the Sheriff's lawyers at the Florida Sheriff's Association. Sheriff Mark Hunter was now guaranteed 39% of Columbia County's non-restricted revenues. Read the March 2015 story here.

Commissioner Tim Murphy
Dist. 5 Com. Tim Murphy listens to the Sheriff.

During that meeting, former Commissioner Rusty DePratter was the only commissioner looking for answers. When Commissioner Sylvester "Bucky" Nash discussed the workings of the County 5. He said, "I feel we are in disarray."

Last night, for the first time since 2008, the County 5 were focused, listened, and did not, for the most part, ramble on.

Sheriff Mark Hunter
Sheriff Mark Hunter was not a happy Sheriff.

The County 5 gave Sheriff Hunter as much time as he needed to make his case to keep the contract implementing percent based budgeting (an interlocal agreement between the Sheriff and the County) in force.

For over an hour, Sheriff Hunter looked for the rabbit to pull out of his hat to convince The 5 to maintain the agreement.

Generally, the five listened in silence.

*There was no vote on keeping the 39%. The discussion brought two options forward: first - keep the 39% with the new revenue from the solar plant; second – do away with the Sheriff's percent based budget.

Mr. Witt made a motion for the first option. It died for lack of a second.

The next step: final action

County Attorney Foreman reminded The 5 that they could not take final action at "this" meeting because it wasn't noticed.

The County 5 will be sending a letter, as is required, to Sheriff Hunter advising him of the Commission's decision to terminate the agreement at the next meeting.

At that time, Sheriff Hunter will have another chance to make his case to save percent based budgeting.

After the meeting Commissioner Witt said, "At the next meeting, I will also be voting to terminate the agreement."

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