Locked in a budget dispute with county commissioners, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan has threatened what he calls “draconian” budget cuts if commissioners don’t give him the $3.6 million he’s requested for employee raises.
Among those cuts would be reductions in the sheriff’s school resource officer (SRO) program, which places sheriff’s deputies in schools located within unincorporated Escambia County. Earlier this week, Morgan told school district officials that the SRO program would be reduced or eliminated at seven schools, including Bailey, Bellview, Ernest Ward, Ferry Pass, and Ransom middle schools, and Northview and West Florida high schools.
The Sheriff’s Office is short on manpower, with around 23 vacant deputy positions, a situation Morgan and his command staff have blamed on high attrition rates due to low salaries. Morgan says a lack of pay raises have caused a “brain drain,” with deputies leaving for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
While Morgan is an independent constitutional officer, the sheriff’s office budget is largely funded by county taxes and is subject to the approval of the five-member county commission. Morgan has threatened to appeal directly to Florida Governor Rick Scott if commissioners don’t approve his requested budget increases.
In an “Ask the Sheriff” video posted to social media on Friday, Morgan said his office has “sustained habitually low budgets every year,” leading to the proposed cuts.
“Paying $216 per resident per deputy is outrageous when other communities with less rates of crime than we have and less incarceration have gone to $290, $300, up to $452 per deputy,” Morgan said. “We are less than half of that. And so now we are again at critical mass. We must do something to provide coverage for those critical crime areas — high-crime areas — in Escambia County. School systems are not high-crime areas, are they?”
Morgan then attacked county commissioners, as he has done in previous videos posted to social media.
“So, again, we’ve got to make tough decisions in Escambia County, because I have a board of county commissioners that can’t see the nose on their face,” Morgan said. “That you cannot continue to run this county on a credit card. The credit card has come due.”
Morgan criticized commissioners for supporting an overall budget increase of $19 million but not finding the money for his requested pay raises.
“Out of that $19 million, you zeroed out the sheriff,” Morgan said. “You cannot find a dollar in that budget to bring us the $3.6 million that we need to maintain where we are today and to try to stop the bleeding.”
In a previous video, Morgan encouraged county commissioners to raise property taxes if necessary to fund his requested budget. However, at a budget meeting earlier this week, Commissioner Doug Underhill — a longtime Morgan ally — presented a plan that would cut around $3.2 million from the budget which could be redirected to the Sheriff’s Office. Around $1.78 million of that figure would come from reclaiming a county-owned building used by the Pathways for Change program and eliminating four vacant county jobs.
The four of five commissioners present at that meeting generally agreed on those cuts, though a formal vote was delayed until the board’s July 27 meeting, when all five commissioners are expected to be in attendance.
Some of Underhill’s other proposed cuts, though, are less likely to win support from a majority of commissioners, including the proposed elimination of commissioners’ discretionary funds and the elimination of $550,000 in county funding for FloridaWest, a not for profit corporation that serves as an outside economic development agency. Underhill has previously said that FloridaWest hasn’t delivered enough results to merit continued funding in light of the county’s budget woes, but other commissioners have come to the organization’s defense and stressed the importance of funding economic development.