I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Taxpayers Win! No Millage Rate Increase this Year

The BCC agreed today to not raise property tax millage rates for 2017-2018 

The Board of County Commissioners officially set the millage rate for 2017-2018 today at a special meeting.

The great news for taxpayers is two-fold.

1.  There will be no millage tax rate increase this year for Escambia County Property Owners.  The board voted to keep this rate static--the same as last year.

2.  The board agreed informally to re-address the process of how LET Funds are disbursed to add a greater degree of oversight (as required by statute) for this process that has recently come under fire.

This process review will take place via staff from the BCC meeting with officials from the Sheriff's department after we get through the budget process in September.  I preferred that we do this right away, however upon hearing from my counterparts--I agree that the perception could be that this is retaliatory given the current impasse we appear to be in with the sheriff with respect to his budget request.

As I stated in the workshop--"no problem--I've waited 6 months-I can wait a few more to have this process looked at.

The process definitely needs to be fixed--in my opinion.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

LET Funding: Process for Disbursement of Funds to be Discussed at Tomorrow's Meeting

After doing a significant amount of reading over the weekend, in light of this very embarrassing article which popped up online on Saturday morning and was in the print edition of the PNJ on Sunday--I feel the BCC needs to discuss the Law Enforcement Trust Fund (LET) process.

I say the article was embarrassing because it was.  For the BCC's part, I believe we can do a better job at being more involved in the process, because at the end of the day-although only the Sheriff can recommend allocations from this fund-- we are the approval authority for the expenditure of these funds.

Under the current process we are utilizing--we simply reimburse the ECSO out of the LET fund for checks that have already, in some cases, been written and cashed out of the ECSO general fund.

But what if the expenditure is questionable?  What if the BCC does not believe that a particular expenditure (out of the dozens and dozens made yearly) is appropriate under the statute?  Under our current system, we have no control, no check and balance function, and no recourse.  The statute is clear, the BCC must take a more active role in the process, and AGO Opinions are clear that the BCC has the final say in whether or not an expenditure should be authorized.

A letter from the SAO last year described some overall areas of the process that could use refinement as well, and I have heard from numerous constituents that want a greater role for the BCC in this process.  So I am listening and I will discuss this with the full board tomorrow morning.

This Email Says it All on How Residents Feel about Tax Rates Going Up.....

I will not vote to raise year-over-year millage tax rates on Escambia County Property Owners, haven't done it for 10 years as an elected official, I'm not starting now....

I heard it when I campaigned last year, and I hear it today.  People are fed up with tax increases, and they are angry at the cavalier attitude some government bureaucrats and elected officials display when they say "We need more money, just raise the property tax millage rate!"  People have had it!   This email is emblematic of the sentiment I hear.......

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Letter to the Court Administrator......

Just received notice of this today.  Looks like another service is being cut and the BCC will be picking up responsibility for some aspects of this coverage after next month....

Coffee With a Commissioner 7-25-2017

We held our monthly coffee with the commissioner this morning at the McDonald's  on Blue Angel and Hwy 98.  We had a very good turnout, many were interested in discussing neighborhood safety.

In particular, one attendee was concerned about an abandoned house that continues to be vandalized in his neighborhood.  "This is bringing in people that are squatting in there, doing drugs!" he stated.  Administrator Jack Brown was present, and he discussed the code enforcement process, what it is, what it does, and what it does not do.  We will be monitoring this situation going forward to the best
of our ability.

Another two attendees wanted to know about a project that was recently approved by the planning board.  "I'm told this complex is going to be HUD (low income) housing--I don't want this in my neighborhood because this will have a detrimental effect on my property values."  We discussed that process with the assembled group, encouraging them to continue to attend the meetings and to
verbalize their concerns at the planning board level and also to the full BCC meeting.  I expressed my own concerns about this situation to the assembled group.

Next we talked about the budget, the jail, and the current issues surrounding public transit/ECAT.
The dialogue was good, and this was a good cross-section of the community that came by to say hello and express their concerns about a variety of topics.

The final issue we discussed, which I brought up, was the subject of raising the sheriff's MSTU for law enforcement.  Initially, several of the group supported raising the rate on the citizens in the unincorporated parts of the county, which would cost the typical homeowner about $40 extra yearly.  Once we discussed the fact that Pensacola Residents pay about twice the amount per citizen for police and their crime is about twice as high as the County's--several realized what is obvious......there is not a direct correlation between what is spent on LEOs and the crime rate--it is more to do with demographics.  I told the group that they may be interested in following this week's budget meetings on Wednesday and Thursday.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Why Cut the SRO Program?

Bellview Middle School is one of the seven schools that might lose their SROs.  Why cut the SRO program?

I get it that we are at somewhat of a budget impasse at the moment--but why cut the SRO program?

Bellview Middle School without a SRO??--this could be problematic.  Bailey Middle without the SRO??  We are going to have parents enraged.  This won't be pretty.

Of course, this is the Sheriff's prerogative if he chooses--but 1/2 of the cost of the SRO's is funded by the school board, and 1/2 of the benefits for the SRO officers is funded by the School District as well.

If he chose to--the Sheriff could offset his costs of the SRO program even more, by utilizing Law Enforcement Trust Funds to accomplish this by funding some of his 1/2 using LET funds.

SRO's are specifically called out as an allowable use of LET funds--so instead of funding charitable groups to such an extreme level--as has been occurring over the last several years----some of this money could be used for the SRO program.  This would free up general fund dollars for the ECSO to fund other issues--like compression pay or raises.

Plus--the contract for the SRO's with the school district gives the sheriff the ability to pull the officers out of the schools when necessary due to emergency situations or need.  This seems like a win-win for budgetary and pragmatic reasons that strongly benefits the ECSO.

So again I ask--"Why cut the SRO Program?"

I'm going to suggest that we discuss the LET funding at an upcoming BCC meeting--especially in light of this letter from the state attorney...........

The embarrassing article and cartoon from Sunday should also be a wake up call for the BCC.

I think we need to establish a better process for approving the expenditures from this LET fund

What Would an Appeal to Tallahassee Look Like?

An appeal of the Escambia BCC's adopted budget allocation to the Sheriff's office would be time consuming, data intense, and there would be no guarantee that the Governor would side with the Sheriff.......he might very well side with the BCC!

While we are still in the process of working through our budget for the FY 2018--there is growing speculation that unless the BCC fully funds the 8% year-over-year budget request from the Sheriff's office---the ECSO will appeal our adopted budget to the Governor.

The Sheriff has very publicly stated there would be no compromise.  He has communicated this personally to me as well.

Currently, Sheriff has requested a total of nearly $60 Million for the FY, an 8% increase above and beyond the $55.4 Million he requested and received last year.

I am on record stating I do not believe we will be able to fully fund the complete 8% increase the sheriff has requested this year.  I am not voting to raise the year over year total millage rate--taxpayers are giving all they can currently.  I have also stated publicly that I believe what we ultimately get the sheriff will be somewhere between the 1.57% increase that has been offered (over last year) and a 4-4.5% increase year over year.  I've also stated that it is my desire to see the street deputies get a pay increase---along with our corrections officers---if the monies could be found.  I won't support one without the other.

I've also stated that I do not believe this will go all the way through the process to the Governor's Administration Commission.  Here's why:

Over the last 30 years, only a couple dozen of these appeals have been filed.  With 67 Counties in Florida, this means over the last 30 years there have been the possibility of more than 2000 such appeals.   Of these, only 4  have made it all the way through the process to come before the Governor and his full commission ( one settled after appearing before the commission, but prior to a ruling being published). This equates to about 1% of the total statewide sheriff's budgets in this 30 year period being appealed, and of those appealed, the 4 that were heard by the full commission represent just over 16% of the total that could have been heard .  (The process can be time consuming, and the parties must appear before a first committee to present their respective cases, and then the parties must appear before a committee comprised of the Governor and his Cabinet Members' aides, and if not settled at this point, only then do the parties appear before the Governor and the full commission.)

Recently the Hernando County Sheriff filed an appeal, which led to scrutiny of his budget, which let to the discovery of about $2 Million in funds that should have, and eventually were, turned back over the the Hernando County BCC.  Eventually, the County and the Sheriff in that case settled their dispute.

Alachua County has seen a few instances of tension, with one ruling being handed down in favor of that sheriff for an amount that was far less than what was requested going into the process.

So the notion that this will be a quick, easy victory for either side is illogical.  I hope the issue can be settled here locally because I know that any outcome dictated downward from Tallahassee (in the unlikely event a locally generated appeal were to even get that far) would be a Pyrrhic victory for our community--no matter which side "Wins."

"The process is designed, and the intent of the whole thing is to have the parties to these disputes settle the dispute short of the process going all the way to the Governor" said a source that is very familiar with this process in Tallahassee with whom I spoke recently.  She continued  "There were many, many years where no appeals were filed statewide."

Of the four that did go all the way, with which this employee with whom I spoke was familiar, one settled before the final ruling by the commission--the other three are linked here, here, and here.

So yes, this is a convoluted, time-consuming process with no pre-determined outcomes and an apparent goal of forcing parties to compromise.

Friday, July 21, 2017

On WCOA Radio This Morning Discussing the Budget....

As we work through our budget process for 2017-2018, challenges have been present around every turn.  Our latest challenge is how to cut enough to fully fund all the departments while simultaneously not raising year-over-year property tax rates.

I'll be discussing this on WCOA this morning, along with the pending class-action settlement of the jail explosion and the beach roundabouts.

Listen to the podcast here.  (Part 1)   (part 2)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bergosh Bulletin for July: How to Create Efficiency in the Criminal Justice System Locally

The July edition of the Bergosh Bulletin is now live.  This month, we are speaking with stakeholders in the criminal justice system locally to see if efficiencies can be created to save money and reduce our overcrowding issue in our jail while simultaneously maintaining community safety as our #1 priority.  It is an interesting discussion.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Important Roundtable Meeting This Morning

7-19-2017 Stakeholders in the local criminal justice community discuss ways to lower costs and create efficiency in the system--- while simultaneously maintaining public safety as priority 1.

The cost of housing inmates in Escambia County is causing a huge drain to our budget.  Medical costs are surging, and our jail population is growing.  One of the things I'd like to work on as the District 1 County Commissioner is to find ways to safely lower the population of the jail and to control medical costs better at our jail.

There are other communities that are doing this more effectively than we are, and as the entity that runs the jail (assigning no value judgments on whether or not that is the most efficient model) the Board of County Commissioners must take a leadership role in this conversation.

I have toured the jail, and no--I do not consider myself an expert on the jail--but I can read and I can and will study this issue as a constitutional officer that was elected to help operate our government as safely and efficiently as possible for District 1 constituents.

This morning's round table will be interesting--and as soon as the video is completed I will post it to this blog.

Conflating Issues

Strong support for Law Enforcement and a desire to be fiscally conservative are not mutually exclusive ideals...

The budget process this year for the BCC has produced a lot of tension, gnashing of teeth, and ill-will---all directed at the BCC and individual board members.

Over the last few weeks and last weekend in particular, I have studied copious amounts of information in order to proceed rationally during the budget meetings.  I'm working toward a compromise position with respect to the Sheriff's office budget that will hopefully result in an increase to his proposed allocation above the currently proposed 1.57% increase.  As I stated on the radio and on the dais, I believe the figure that we arrive at will be higher, perhaps totaling a 3-4% increase over last-year's level.  I have also stated that I don't think we will get to the 8% year over year increase the sheriff has requested.

Beyond the work of tweaking the budget, making cuts, and attending endless meetings, the venom directed at us personally is a disappointment.

In fact--the most disappointing aspect in the process thus far has been the personalization of the process.

The issues are being conflated.  The talking points are being put out that "Unless the board funds the ECSO budget to 100% of what has been requested--the BCC does not value law enforcement."  This

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Budget Discussions May Get Heated, But We Will Settle this Budget......

The discussions thus far have been mild, with a few exceptions.

This will change in the near term but I firmly believe that although the discussions may get heated, we will settle the budget without outside influence.

The Sheriff's budget appears to be the most controversial.

Before I even got off the plane from the West Coast last week I heard on the radio that the Sheriff was "done" and that he was going to appeal our allotment of funds to his office to the Governor.  He can do this if he wants to--but  I sincerely hope we can settle the budget locally without the drama.

So far as I understand it, he can appeal our allotment to the state for his general budget, but he has no appeal mechanism for our LOST IV allocation.  I hope everyone realizes this and that between the two funds we can come to consensus locally and cooler heads will prevail.

Here is the story so far as I understand it as the new guy on the board....

For the last two years the Sheriff has received 100% of his requested allocation--100% no muss no fuss....  for the last four years, It appears to me that the Sheriff has received yearly budget increases of about 4% on average, year over year.  If we extrapolate the historical averages, this would point to an increase of about another close to 3.2% this year --------instead of what is being offered---- 1.6%.

For the last four years running, the sheriff's office employees have received yearly pay increases of 3% per year.  I have confirmed this with multiple sources.

For this year, the Sheriff's budget request is about 8% over the previous years' increase.

So far as I understand it, this is to allow for not only a 3% across the board pay increase, but also for a salary compression adjustment of 2%  that will help align the  local sheriff's office with other departments statewide.

I don't know if we can get all the way there in one year---- taking this all in one gulp.

My sense of the situation is that we will surely allocate more than what we have initially offered to the sheriff--perhaps as much as an additional $1.5 Million once the dust settles.  

It won't be what Sheriff has requested but it will be more than what has initially been put forward by the administrator.

Here's why.....

We all love our Military, LEO, Fire, and First Responders.

These folks do amazing work and run toward dangerous situations when everyone else  runs the other direction--away from problems....

I hate the fact that the atmosphere has suddenly grown toxic;  It is my hope that we will all take a step back from the ledge and realize it is in everyone's best interest if we work together locally to set the budget for the Sheriff's operating and capital needs going forward.

I honestly believe we will be able to do this, after spending the weekend communicating with multiple players intimately involved in this issue and after studying this matter meticulously over the whole weekend.

We will see how it plays out, but I believe our LOST IV allotment to the Sheriff will rise, as well as our General Fund appropriation.  I believe instead of a 1.6% increase, the  figure will be closer to $57.5 Million for LEO and Court Security Operations--representing a little more than a 3% increase--which I feel will settle the matter for this year--I hope because it should when the full picture is taken into account.

We shall see, though.

If this is still not adequate--then by all means the Sheriff has the ability to appeal the non LOST IV budgeted amount to the Governor.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Alternative Facts?

Claims of the benefits of high-quality pre-K programs have been presented to the BCC a couple of times now.  We're told VPK improves high school graduation rates and also improves test scores measured after grade 3.  I am waiting for the proof.....

A few weeks back Achieve Escambia visited the BCC to give us an update on their work in the community.  I appreciated the update and the discussion.

The subject of VPK came up at that time and I briefly discussed my thoughts on this with the presenters that day.  One of the discussion points that I took issue with at that time was simply the efficacy of high-priced VPK and Pre-K programs when looked at from an academic standpoint.

My overall opinion:  These are expensive programs that are beneficial socially, like entitlements, but that are not effective (or minimally effective) long-term from a strictly academic standpoint.

This is not popular because there is a lot of money pumped into these programs and a lot of profit to be made by companies that promote the academic benefits of such programs.

But with great claims come the expectation of clear and convincing evidence of effectiveness--otherwise I will not be convinced.

The research studies I have read ( the high-quality research studies, not the anecdotal, topical ones that look at Abecadarian and Perry High-Scope from the 1960's and 1970) point to a fade-out of academic gains by third grade among Pre-K completers.  This wash-out that occurs renders the casual observer unable to differentiate those students from similar economic backgrounds and cohorts who did/did not attend Pre-K when all students are measured academically upon completion of third grade.

This sort of blows up the notion that Pre-K is this academic panacea that helps students from challenged home lives do better in school long-term.  Trouble is-- Early Childhood Education, VPK, Pre-K and similar programs are popular program because they bring money and jobs to areas and these programs are among those academic ideas (like smaller class sizes for better academic outcomes) that seem like they ought to be beneficial-- but the benefits of which are hard if not impossible to quantify.

The other gem I heard that day was that somehow a good Pre-K program improves High School Graduation percentages.  What??  Says who?  Where is the proof?  I have never heard of any reputable research that shows this, so I asked for the studies when Achieve Escambia appeared before the board.  Never heard back from them.

Fast forward to yesterday evening, and the early learing coalition was presenting to the board.  Executive Director Walter Watson was looking for $300K for his group--an expenditure I support by the way.  

He takes money from the county and other sources and leverages it to provide day-care services to families in poverty so the parents can work.  His paperwork shows that this group has been very successful at multiplying these local government monies to accomplish this mission.  I also like the fact that his salary is among the lowest of the Executive Directors that have pitched before the board--so when the discussion came around to the quality of the day-care/pre-school, Watson threw out the anecdote that the "Florida Department of Education has a study that shows that Pre-K graduates score 15 points higher on standardized testing than their non-Pre-K graduate peers when measured at grade 3."  I asked him to clarify that statement because I couldn't believe my ears.

I don't believe such a study exists.  I don't believe there are any strictly-controlled, scientifically valid

Medical Costs are Crushing Us at the Jail

At yesterday's budget workshop, we went through the corrections budget in detail.

The jail's medical costs are skyrocketing, the medical costs are crushing us at the jail.

Setting aside the fact that we have 250 more prisoners total in custody today compared to the day the jail blew up in April of 2014--the prisoners today are sicker than the prisoners from 2014--according to staff.  I have a hard time believing that but that is what staff told us point blank.

"In 2014--we had a total of only 10 dialysis treatments for our inmates ( a figure I question )--whereas today we have had more that 300" said one staff member.

My counterpart Steven Barry asked "What has changed between then and now--what has led to this increase?"  the response was "Today's inmates are sicker."  Is it really that they are sicker, or are we tripping over ourselves to over-diagnose and treat them?

We are also spending massive amounts of cash on top-level prescription drugs for inmates, I was told at the meeting.  When I asked why, I was told we were meeting medical needs of inmates at the "Community Standard."  To which I asked, "What does that term mean?"  I did not receive a response that answered my question and I am going to did deeper into this.

I get it that we need to provide medical treatment to our inmates--but I am not willing to spend taxpayer money on top-notch, brand name pharmaceutical drugs when there are less expensive and equally humane treatments available.  We need to provide basic, stabilizing medical treatment (s) and care for these prisoners that we are temporarily housing--nothing more or less--that is my opinion.

Because it is helpful to remember that many of the taxpayers who foot the bill for this facility do not have insurance or are under-insured themselves.

Is it right to take money from under-insured or non-insured constituents and provide Cadillac treatments and brand-name pharmaceutical drugs to the inmates in our jail if less expensive alternatives are available?

To me, this is almost akin to recognizing that many of the inmates that come to us are diabetic, obese, and have horrible eating habits--so while they are in our jail we hire a master Chef, specializing in Mediterranean Heart Healthy cooking in order to provide our inmates with top-notch cuisine while they are incarcerated--to include fresh seafood, lean meats, vegetables and fruits, prepared to 5-star hotel "community standards."  We wouldn't do that, would we?

I'm going to dig through the entire medical budget like a gopher going through the garden carrot patch--we are hemorrhaging cash and this is part of the problem in my estimation