FORT WALTON BEACH — Okaloosa County commissioners have agreed to help Sheriff Larry Ashley fill vacancies created when he pulled 26 deputies from other units and placed them in local elementary schools.
The board voted unanimously Tuesday to provide the Sheriff’s Office with up to $44,200 on a month-to-month basis as needed. As he fills the slots, Ashley must formally request the money, which will be pulled from the county’s general fund reserves.
Ashley placed deputies in every school following the Dec. 14 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
On Jan. 8, Ashley requested that commissioners contribute $265,000 — or at least commit to the idea of the funding — to help replenish the force.
The request initially rankled a few commissioners, who labeled it a knee-jerk and costly decision. On Tuesday, only Commission Chairman Don Amunds and Commissioner Dave Parisot continued to question the need for the funding.
Commissioner Kelly Windes said it was risky to operate the Sheriff’s Office with fewer deputies on the street.
“I agree with the sheriff,” Windes said. “My concern is partly the void on the street that we’re creating when we take these officers and put them in the schools. We can’t let the whole suffer because of the special needs that have just come up.”
Windes said “the stakes are too high” for the county not to make the funding of school resource officers a priority.
Commissioner Wayne Harris agreed, adding that “public safety and security is paramount.”
Parisot questioned whether the Sheriff’s Office must fill every position it has vacated. He suggested it could do without a marine unit or operate with reduced courthouse security.
He also noted that county reserves had been decreased “well below” his comfort level and that Okaloosa might need the reserves to get through a weather emergency.
Although Parisot wanted the board to take more time to study the issue, he eventually agreed to provide Ashley with up to $44,200 as needed on a monthly basis.
Ashley told commissioners he is in the best position to know how many deputies he needs to protect the county.
“It gets down to, ‘Do you trust me?’ ” he said. “Do you trust me to give you the right numbers? I know the previous sheriff has certainly made our county a very difficult place to operate.”
Ashley said all the units from which he pulled deputies are essential services. Because of the manpower shift, the Sheriff’s Office is operating without a street crimes unit, beach and marine patrol and a traffic enforcement unit. The areas of civil processing, court security, and detention and booking have been significantly reduced.
Keeping deputies in all of the district’s schools will cost an estimated $3.5 million a year.
Commissioners agreed that would be a main point of discussion during 2014 budget deliberations in the spring and summer.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Kari Barlow at 850-315-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KariBnwfdn.