Michael R Fulton: Proposed GPD/ASO merger is a really bad idea

Published: Friday, January 28, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 5:22 p.m.

Every couple of years we have to go through a drill in which some part of Alachua County government, usually with the support of The Gainesville Sun, attempts to merge city and county services.

Every time, we must revisit high school civics to remind ourselves of the reasons we have different jurisdictions of government.

Counties are an extension of the state government and were created by the Legislature to provide extended state services such as health and welfare and criminal justice such as the courts, jails and prisons. Within the counties, some of us gather together in more concentrated populations and form municipalities to provide ourselves with more intensified local services such as police, fire, planning, parks and public utilities.

Over the years, the area outside the city limits of Gainesville has continued to develop and the county, rather than promoting annexation, has attempted to provide a municipal level of services outside the city limits. It is economically and logistically impossible to provide a uniform level of municipal services to such a wide and diverse area. The county is further handicapped by the fact that the distribution of many special revenues favors incorporated cities. The county is attempting to provide municipal services without the benefits of being a municipality.

All of the problems that Sheriff Sadie Darnell and the proponents of merged law enforcement take up are a direct result of this basic flaw in our county management model. If they would allow the municipalities to provide municipal services to the developed areas and quit pretending to provide municipal services to the rural areas, all issues of service provision would sort themselves out.

That would require shrinking the sheriff's office, not expanding it, and this merger initiative has always been driven by employees of the sheriff's office who wish to increase its size.

The cultural differences between the sheriff's office and a municipal police department are huge. Police department officials are hired, fired and promoted according to performance and merit. The sheriff is an elected constitutional officer with all the political and partisan ramifications of political office. When they are elected they bring their command staff with them, and to oppose the sheriff's re-election is to limit one's chances for promotion.

Also, the elected sheriff is likely to ignore the policies of the commission and appeal the budget to the state Legislature, wresting control of the budget and hence our taxes from the elected policy makers.

While I have never been comfortable with the inclusion of politics in law enforcement, I think an elected sheriff and a commission appointed police chief is a good balance. I would not want to eliminate one or the other.

There never was any real evidence that money could be saved, in fact I think the resources of the city would be sucked out into the dysfunctional county system.

Gainesville is a fully functional municipality, with well-managed service organizations, doing an excellent job of providing a uniformly high level of municipal services. It would not be in best interest of the citizens of Gainesville to give up control of their service levels and budget. Nor would it be in the best interest of the citizens of Alachua County to expand on a model that delivers many different levels of service and non-service while charging the same tax county wide. It is a bad idea.

Michael R Fulton is a retired district chief of Gainesville-Fire Rescue.

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