Change of the guard

Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 1:42 a.m.

Police Chief Norman Botsford, fton, with Alachua County Sheriff Steve Oelrich. The Gainesville Police Department takes over law enforcement today of a newly annexed area of Gainesville from the Sheriff's office.

Gary Boothby is one Gainesville Police officer who won't be in unfamiliar territory today now that a 2-square-mile chunk of land with 14,000 residents has become part of the city.
Boothby had been an Alachua County sheriff's deputy until a few months ago, and the maze of apartment complexes that are now part of the city was in his previous patrol zone.
He is now with the Gainesville Police Department and will patrol the same area.
But Boothby's switch to GPD is more than just a change from a green uniform to a blue one. And the annexation is more than just a change in which agency provides public safety in the area.
Instead, they signify two departments heading in different directions.
GPD is on the rise, buoyed by more land, more officers, more chances for promotion.
The Sheriff's Office is staring at a future of less turf, less money and fewer jobs.
"I kind of saw the writing on the wall," Boothby said. "The city is growing. If (developer) Clark Butler has his way with it, there is not going to be any county (land) other than Archer, Newberry and Hawthorne. I have to start thinking about my family. It is a money situation."
Butler developments - the strip malls on Archer Road and more big boxes on the way - are emblematic of the urban areas of unincorporated Alachua County that will likely be annexed into Gainesville over time.
With each annexation, the territory of the Sheriff's Office will shrink. So will its funding. It will be harder to justify keeping so many deputies - not to mention the helicopters, armored personnel carriers, SWAT arsenals and other tools added over the years.
Sheriff Steve Oelrich, mindful of that, inflamed his already acrimonious relationship with the Alachua County Commission by filing a lawsuit against it to force all county residents - not just those in unincorporated areas - to pay for road patrols. No court action has been taken in the suit.
"I understand cities have a desire to grow and to annex, but it can't be at the expense of having a strong countywide law enforcement agency that is there to assist every single citizen in a county regardless of whether they are inside a city or outside a city," Oelrich said. "I'm trying to establish some stability for the funding of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office. My contention is that all citizens in the entire county get benefits from the sheriff, so I want to establish funding on a stable, countywide basis."
The situation - the annexations, the rancor over his budget, the lawsuit and the potential political and legal fallout from it - point to an immediate future that could be as contentious as a standoff between cops and criminals.
"For the county, it creates a sense of, 'Wait a minute, how much more do we need to grow with our law enforcement if we are not going to be the primary responder,'" said state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, a former state attorney. "It puts pressure on the Sheriff's Office, and the sheriff still has his hands full serving a very large county with services he has to provide. I think the pressures on the County Commission and the Sheriff's Office, from their respective views, are going to increase."
The annexation
At midnight, the Sheriff's Office stopped patrolling the annexed area and GPD started.
It was a busy time. The University of Florida's first football game of the season ended about 9:30 p.m., so plenty of partying was happening in the student apartment complexes dominating that area.
Oelrich can blame those students - and the County Commission - for his predicament.
The County Commission cut funding for a Gainesville Regional Transit System bus route serving the area. UF student government organized a successful annexation drive to save the route.
It was a costly cut for the county. To save the $220,000 annually for the bus route, the county is losing a projected $2.5 million in tax revenue.
That money now goes to the Gainesville City Commission, which gave GPD cash to hire 20 new officers and buy cars and equipment for them.
The annexation was a tonic for GPD. Last year morale was low. Officer Scott Baird was killed. Former Officer Jimmy Hecksel was charged with manslaughter for fatally shooting a fleeing suspect. Officers were jumping to other agencies and the department had 30 vacancies.
Now, those 30 vacancies plus 20 new positions have been filled by an energetic team of officers shifted into personnel to recruit. Four of those new hires were sheriff's deputies.
More officers means more promotions for veterans. A new contract brought a pay increase.
Police Chief Norman Botsford said the annexation has revitalized the department.
"The growth, the addition of more people and the opportunities that creates for new assignments - more detectives, traffic officers, supervisors, managers - it creates a sense of energy and renewed vigor in everybody," Botsford said.
The transition has not been as cheery at the Sheriff's Office.
The County Commission wanted all county agencies to slice their budgets. Oelrich and the commission, after considerable wrangling, agreed that $900,000 was his cost to police the annexed area and the County Commission cut that amount.
Oelrich argues his force - 238 sworn officers including deputies and ranked officers - was short-staffed to begin with. He was scornful of the notion by some commissioners that he should cut positions equal to those added by GPD.
His top commanders say the deputies who patrolled the annexed area are needed to shore up weaknesses elsewhere.
"Basically, what I'm going to do is take those deputies who patrolled that area and redeploy them to be more proactive in these other areas that we get complaints about," said sheriff's Capt. Emory Gainey, who oversees the patrol division. "Obviously, some calls for service will go away with the annexation. But if I lose deputy sheriffs, our response times will go up."
The response time is the time it takes a deputy to get to a scene after being dispatched. The average varies depending on the type of incident and location.
In urban areas, the average response time for a top priority call - a murder, sexual assault, robbery - is two to three minutes, Gainey said. The average time for a top priority call in a rural area is almost 11 minutes.
Still, some county commissioners say the Sheriff's Office already consumes a slice of the budget that is too big - about 40 percent of the overall county budget.
The most vocal among them is Commissioner Mike Byerly. He said the sheriff's budget and department have been growing despite previous annexations by Gainesville and other municipalities that have cut Oelrich's patrol territory.
Byerly wants some money earmarked for the sheriff to instead be used for recreation, drug treatment, jail alternatives and other programs Byerly believes will prevent crime.
"I believe it is important that the county commissioners assert their right and responsibility to set the budget. It's our job to decide what the county's spending priorities are," Byerly said. "Every other department is having to prioritize, so should the sheriff."
Sheriff's budget
The sheriff's budget is broken into several different components with different methods of funding.
Some of the services are countywide - serving warrants, providing bailiffs at the courthouse - and are paid through the county's general revenue fund collected from all taxpayers.
But a separate Metropolitan Services Taxing Unit for residents of unincorporated areas is used to pay for road patrols. The reasoning is that only residents of the unincorporated county benefit from the road patrols, so only they should pay for them.
In the lawsuit, Oelrich wants all of his budget paid from the general revenue fund.
"We are a countywide law enforcement agency. Our jurisdiction is countywide and we are funded countywide," Oelrich said. "So I wanted to move more toward general funding than MSTU."
Oelrich said the Sheriff's Office answered about 10,254 calls for service within Gainesville in 2001, pointing to that as added justification for having all taxpayers - city residents included - pay for road patrols.
Municipal police such as GPD request help from the Sheriff's Office on occasion. An example took place about three weeks ago when a crowd of about 1,000 migrated from downtown to W. University Avenue convenience stores west of 6th Street. A few fought when police tried to clear the scene. It got so frantic that GPD called the Sheriff's Office and the Florida Highway Patrol for help.
A sizeable number of those 10,254 calls - 4,388 - were for traffic stops, perhaps a deputy driving within the city ticketing an erratic driver. Still more of those calls were for other traffic matters such as drunken drivers, traffic problems and crashes.
The next largest category of the 47 listed by the sheriff's department were calls for assistance at 2,039 calls. None of the other categories exceeded 670 calls.
Botsford said the calls worked by the sheriff's office in the city are less than 1 percent of the total GPD works.
"We welcome his assistance if they are not busy enough in the unincorporated area and have time to come into the city of Gainesville and help us out," Botsford said. "And our officers back them up frequently when requested and we certainly will continue to do that. We certainly don't keep track of that."
Oelrich risks losing even if he wins the lawsuit.
If Oelrich prevails, taxes paid to the County Commission general revenue fund by residents of Gainesville and other incorporated cities will pay for sheriff's patrols in unincorporated areas.
That would surely upset city residents - voters among them - who are paying for GPD and would view paying for sheriff's deputies as double taxation.
"The sheriff's road patrols in unincorporated areas is the same kind of service residents of municipalities with police departments are paying for in their millage," said UF law professor Joe Little, a former city commissioner. "To the extent the sheriff is providing municipal kinds of law enforcement, there is no question it should come out of the MSTU. Otherwise you are mistreating the people in the municipalities."
Byerly said he believes the lawsuit is "politically motivated."
"As municipalities expand, his domain essentially continues to shrink with each annexation area. So politically, how do you get ahead of that problem? How do you secure your budget in the long term rather than just accept that your jurisdiction is going to continue to shrink?" Byerly said. "His decision is to say, 'Well, yes, I patrol primarily in the unincorporated area but I consider myself countywide in patrol.' I don't agree. I think as the unincorporated area shrinks, the need for service shrinks. The slack needs to be taken up by the annexing police."
The entire county is about 900 square miles. Gainesville occupies about 50 of that. Other municipalities with smaller police departments are Alachua, High Springs and Waldo.
One way to escape double taxation is to have a single law enforcement agency providing blanket patrols in cities and the unincorporated area.
Oelrich has been talking up the idea, which was considered about 10 years but quickly died from lack of support.
The sheriff and other proponents of unification believe it can save money through increased efficiency and elimination of duplicate services.
"We have five separate forces within Alachua County now. But when one entity of local government grows by way of annexation, causing harm to the constitutional office of the sheriff, and ultimately resulting in greater expense to the citizens and taxpayers, remedy needs to be sought. Unification of law enforcement is the solution. As a community, we've talked about it for years. It's time for action," Oelrich said.
Sheriff's deputies, who generally oppose annexations, also seem keen on unification.
Deputy David Rodriguez, whose zone includes the annexed area, said consolidation would be great.
"We all serve the same public. We all help each other and back each other up. Lots of times, if I see a GPD unit, I'll slow down or park until they give me the thumbs up. It's just that they wear a blue uniform and we wear a green uniform. Why not put everyone in one color?" Rodriguez asked. "The goal of all of us is to fight crime and make things safer. Why not join? I've looked at other agencies that are combined and it seems to work."
Former UF President E.T. York chaired a committee that studied and ultimately recommended unification in the early 1990s. York said he still favors it, believing the need to streamline is just as valid today as it was then.
But it's unlikely to happen. Botsford and City Manager Wayne Bowers said a single force could not provide the level of service GPD does.
Bowers said the city's long-range plans envision annexation of the entire Gainesville Regional Utilities service area stretching west to Jonesville, east to Newnan's Lake and northwest along Millhopper Road and to the city of Alachua. GPD will expand with the city, Bowers said.
"I don't think unification of police is the way to go. Urban policing is different than covering the whole county. People live in cities - created cities - for a higher level of service and people don't mind paying a little bit more for it. I don't think a countywide agency could afford to provide that," Bowers said. "I agree we don't need two urban police departments. I think it is duplicative and expensive. But the answer to that is annexation. All the urban areas comes in the city and the county does what traditionally sheriffs have done - the rural road patrol."
Ready to go
Unification isn't something Gainesville officers are concerning themselves with, especially those dealing with the annexed area. A team spent the summer talking with residents and businesses about problems and expectations.
Botsford said the area will be a new zone that will be patrolled as other city zones - through community-oriented policing with officers assigned specifically to that area. Community-oriented policing is a hallmark of urban policing.
Boothby, for one, is eager to get back to his old turf. And so far, he has no regrets about leaving the Sheriff's Office.
"I like the people at ASO. I have a lot of friends there. I spent eight years with them. When I went from ASO to GPD people were, like, 'Holy manoly, not him.' As far as everybody concerned, if I got shot, green blood would come out of me," he said. "When I went to GPD, I asked what I could bring to them that would benefit the department. They recruited me with open arms. I'm excited. I think this is the place to be."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@

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