Budget talks get heated between sheriff, commission
Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods speaks against an emergency ordinance to require face coverings during the Ocala City Council meeting at Ocala City Hall in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. The City Council voted 3-2 against the emergency mask ordinance suggested by Councilman Matt Wardell that would have required people in Ocala to wear face coverings in indoor locations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.
Discussions became a bit heated when the Marion County Commissioners’ budget workshop turned to the Sheriff’s Office budget.
Multiple issues arose between Sheriff Billy Woods and the commissioners during Monday afternoon’s workshop.
The annual tussle between the sheriff and commissioners is largely due to the oversight the commission has over the funds it gives Woods and Woods’ argument that his budget is his to spend as he sees fit.
In his proposal to the commission, Woods is asking to hire eight additional deputies and five additional call-takers for the communications center, among other new positions for the jail.
The communication center is a particular sore spot between the sheriff and commissioners.
The issues date back to 2019, when Ocala decided to pull its fire rescues dispatching from the Public Safety Communications operated by the county. In 2011, the sheriff’s office and the county and city fire rescues consolidated under the PSC, which was under direct county supervision as a separate administrative department. The Ocala Police Department never joined the consolidation.
But after the city’s fire rescue pulled out and partnered with OPD, the sheriff also pulled out the law enforcement 911 operators and dispatchers. Those employees now fall under the sheriff’s office budget. The county still staffs the dispatchers that handle county fire calls.
Not long after the internal split, Woods increased his communication employees pay. The county now has to spend at least $500,000 to match Woods increases.
The dispatchers all share the same space.
Commissioners Michelle Stone and Kathy Bryant argue the split at the communications center is causing morale issues and duplicating services at the expense of the taxpayers.
“Deconsolidation has cost almost $2 million,” said Bryant. “I do not support the decentralization of the communications center.”
But Woods continues to argue for complete control over the communication center.
“If you put it in my hands I’d take care of it,” Woods said, adding he wouldn’t stand for whining.
Commission Chairman Jeff Gold, said while he supports the nearly $5 million proposed increase to the sheriff’s budget, which would bring it to $109 million, he pleaded with the sheriff to focus on putting more deputies on the road.
“When we’re bumping up the budget and bumping up the budget and we’re not seeing a big increase in the number of road deputies and your need in more, it’s just hard for us,” Gold said.
Gold said the salaries of five communications workers he proposed hiring could go to hiring more deputies.
Woods said he spends his budget as he sees fit and for what is in the best interest of the sheriff’s office.
“If you don’t agree with how I run my department, I don’t give a rat’s ass. I’ve cut the budget where I can,” he said.
The office has 130 deputy positions, some of which are currently unfilled. Woods said they need upwards of 200 deputies to meet the state average of 1.7 deputies for every 1,000 residents.
According to Woods, the sheriff’s department received 145,000 calls from Jan. 1 to May 31.
Carl Zalak, Vice Chairman of the Commission, agreed with putting more deputies on the road.
Gold added, “We also need more detention center deputies.”
The meeting closed with Michelle Stone, District 5 Commissioner, and Woods having a heated exchange over the nearly $2 million in spending increases for the communications center.
“That’s not from my budget,” Woods said quietly alluding to the increases falling on the county’s side of the ledger.
“We better cut the mics now,” Stone replied.
The county will continue discussing the budget, which they will vote on in September and go into effect on Oct.1.