FORT WALTON BEACH — Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley is standing firm on a plan to spend $3.4 million to keep an armed deputy in every school for another year.
“If I’ve got to list the priorities of what the Sheriff’s Office does, I believe those kids are at the top of that list,” he told county commissioners Tuesday during a budget workshop.
Ashley has secured about $1.2 million in funding from the Okaloosa County School Board. He needs another $2.2 million from the county to pay for the program.
That $2.2 million accounts for almost half of the $4.7 million increase he has requested from county commissioners for fiscal 2013-14.
Commissioners made no decision on the request Tuesday. County Administrator Ernie Padgett has proposed giving Ashley a $2 million increase, but commissioners will have the final approval in September.
If commissioners don’t approve his request, Ashley has vowed to cut a wide range of other services to pay for the deputies in schools.
“I just think it’s that important, regardless who’s funding it,” he said.
Some commissioners questioned the fiscal burden the program places on taxpayers.
Commissioner Wayne Harris said Ashley’s decision to place deputies in all the schools was “self-imposed” and not something the board initiated.
He also called for the school district to shoulder more of the cost.
“My heartburn is if the schools are getting the bulk of the benefit, then the schools should be paying for it,” Harris said. “ … If it’s that important to them, why aren’t they willing to come up with that?”
Ashley said school district officials don’t believe they should be responsible for enforcing state laws, and that it’s the Sheriff’s Office’s job to protect students and school employees.
“From that point of view, it’s certainly my responsibility to protect our citizens,” he said.
Commissioner Nathan Boyles agreed with Harris. He said the school district is an independent taxing authority and should pay for the deputies in schools if it deems that is a priority.
“They should be funding that program, no different than they fund school lunches or that they fund school buses or any of the programs associated with educating our children,” Boyles said.
Ashley told commissioners he is committed to the school resource officer program with or without additional funding, and will make major cuts to fund it.
He said the program is “more than just an armed response to an attack.” It helps children see law officers as friends and deters crime at schools, he added.
“I can’t measure the crime prevention, but I can tell you it’s there,” Ashley told commissioners.
Among the Sheriff’s Office services that could be reduced or eliminated are traffic enforcement, marine enforcement, specialized street crime units, employee fingerprinting, funeral escorts and walk-in civil process and records services.
Ashley’s total budget request for next year is $32.8 million.
The remainder of Ashley’s $4.7 million increase includes $600,000 for state retirement fund contributions, another $600,000 for a 3 percent salary increase for his employees and $1.2 million for 40 patrol vehicles, a prisoner transportation bus and 20 mobile computer terminals.
“There’s no fluff in this budget,” Ashley said.