County panel could back tighter control of sheriff


Published: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 12:31 a.m.
A change in the structure of Alachua County government aimed at bringing Sheriff Steve Oelrich under greater budgetary control is in writing and may be recommended by a panel created to find ways the county can save money.
The recommended change - which would need voter approval - would bring the constitutional officers more under the authority of the Alachua County Commission.
The recommendations - if they are eventually implemented - could have a significant impact on the level of service residents get from the sheriff and other officers, on the amount of taxes they pay and the way the county is governed.
While the proposed recommendation by the Blue Ribbon Finance Committee does not specifically mention the sheriff, various officials say he is the target.
"I think the reason (the committee) feels strongly is that it is sensing we don't have a team player. We've all got to work together," said County Commissioner Paula DeLaney, who was on the committee before her election. "We have to fund the constitutional officers, and everybody has to understand we are all going to have to do without if we change our priorities. But the sheriff's position is so embedded in government that it will be interesting to see how a ballot discussion would fall out."
Oelrich, who spoke at several committee meetings, said some members were adversarial toward him from the start, but others have been supportive.
Oelrich added that he needs the money to protect residents and run his operations, including the jail.
"The largest percent of our budget is personnel, and I certainly don't feel our people are overpaid," Oelrich said. "After 13 years as sheriff, I've never had anybody say we have way too much protection on the street, but I get the other - people saying it took a deputy 10 minutes to get there. I'm doing the best I can with what I have. As far as government in general, I think we are an excellent bang for the buck."
Year of meetings The committee is nearing the end of a yearlong adventure in which its philosophically and temperamentally diverse membership learned how the county gets its money, how it spends it and how it should get money and spend it in the future. A final report is expected in a few weeks.
Deputy County Manager Richelle Sucara, who is overseeing the committee, stressed it has a few more meetings, and the recommendations could change. Minority reports could be included.
The criminal justice budget, the bulk of which is for the Sheriff's Office, is the single largest budget in the county. The 2005 budget is about $217.5 million, of which about $57.2 million is the sheriff's. The sheriff, property appraiser and tax collector can appeal their budgets to the governor.
Oelrich said the percentage of the total budget that goes to his office is shrinking.
Still, several committee members said Oelrich commands too much of the county's money.
"There is general agreement among the committee that something needs to be done with the sheriff's budget, which is one of the reasons for the idea that the county take control back of its budget," committee member Mark Goldstein said. "You can't run a business when you have one officer deciding how to spend the single largest fund that you have."
The offices of sheriff, clerk of the courts, property appraiser, tax collector and elections supervisor were set up early in Florida history to carry out functions of the state at the county level.
But constitutional revisions gave counties - through charters - the flexibility to organize those duties in a variety of ways.
Some counties, for instance, make the positions appointed rather than elected. Some have a mixture.
The committee's latest draft recommends that all constitutional officers be brought under greater budgetary control and that the sheriff, property appraiser and tax collector lose their rights to appeal their budgets to the state.
Kurt Spitzer is a former director of the Florida Association of Counties and now has a consulting firm that helps counties with such issues.
Spitzer said allowing the commission to consolidate clerical duties could save money.
"The voters gain greater efficiencies - there is more uniformity in purchasing or accounting or auditing to see what's going on - and operate more as a team. The downside is, they simply are not as independent as they were before. That's the heart of the debate - is it worth that?" Spitzer said.
Other offices hit While the committee may be aiming for Oelrich, all other officers would be swept up in the process.
Alachua County Clerk of the Court Buddy Irby, the longest-serving constitutional officer, opposes changing the current system.
"The clerk plays an important role with regard to the checks and balances in county government," Irby said. "I believe it is in the best interest of the people to preserve this relationship."
As it now stands, the Blue Ribbon Committee is also set to recommend the County Commission adopt a 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax, a sales tax of as much as 1 percent for infrastructure needs, and a food and beverage tax on all meals served in the county. It also recommend that the county try to secure payments by the state for state property that is not taxable.
Meanwhile, property taxes should be lowered, a draft report states. The intent of the increased sales taxes and reduced property tax is to diversify revenue.
Another recommendation may be that the county stop providing urban services such as recreation and instead help municipalities provide those services or create special taxing districts for them. Sucara said the committee hopes to present a report to the County Commission in February.
Cindy Swirko can be reached at (352) 374-5024 or swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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