Message from Sheriff Paul Blackman about Avon Park law enforcement contract

Last night, I presented the Avon Park City Council with a letter giving them a 365-day termination notice for the contract to provide law enforcement services for the City of Avon Park.

What does that mean? Unless the contract is re-negotiated, the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office will no longer be the primary agency for law enforcement inside the city limits of Avon Park as of Nov. 9, 2021. During the time in between, however, nothing will change. Deputies will still be on patrol in the city.

The reason for taking this step is simple: the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office can’t afford to provide law enforcement services to the City of Avon Park under the current contract and, at least so far, the city has been unwilling to adjust the contract to reflect the reality of the cost to the HCSO. The rest of the county is subsidizing law enforcement inside the city limits of Avon Park to a large degree, and that is not fair to those taxpayers who live outside the city.

This should not have come as a surprise to city officials. I have met with the previous three city managers to explain that the residents in the rest of the county are the ones footing a large part of the bill for their law enforcement, but the city has not addressed our concerns.

There are a lot of numbers that go into this but they all add up to the same problem. The current contract pays the HCSO $1,427,932 for the 2020-21 fiscal year. City residents also contribute $1,204,000 in ad valorem (property) taxes to the HCSO, which comes to a total $2,631,932 that the residents of Avon Park will pay to the sheriff’s office this year.

That may sound like a lot, but the fact is that it costs us more than $2.5 million to provide just the services included in the contract – in other words, the things that are supposed to be covered under that $1.4 million payment.

It gets even worse when you add in the rest of the things that go into providing law enforcement services to the city.

Dispatch, housing inmates in the jail, Animal Services and other support functions are also factors, and the City of Avon Park consumes a large portion of those services.

For example, Avon Park is home to roughly 10 percent of the county population and pays 6 percent of the property taxes, but 23 percent of the inmates who were booked into the jail last year were arrested in Avon Park and 26 percent of all of our calls for service last year were inside the city limits of Avon Park.

When you factor those in, Avon Park consumes an additional $3,761,995 worth of Sheriff’s Office resources.
Add it all together, and you have Avon Park paying $2,631,932 (city and county taxes combined) and costing the HCSO $6,317,476. The rest of Highlands County, though the Sheriff’s Office, is unfairly being asked to subsidize Avon Park’s law enforcement to the tune of more than $3.6 million this year. That not only doesn’t make fiscal sense for the HCSO, it also isn’t fair to the rest of the county’s taxpayers and I can’t allow that injustice to continue any longer.

To put it another way, Avon Park pays about $130 per resident per year for law enforcement. Lake Placid residents pay $358 and Sebring residents pay $393. Residents in unincorporated Highlands County pay about $267 per year each for law enforcement services from the HCSO.
Law enforcement costs per resident for Highlands County

Avon Park does not exist in a bubble. Deputies who should be patrolling areas like Avon Park Lakes, Avon Park Estates, Sun ‘n Lake and the Crossings are instead getting pulled into the city to help those Avon Park deputies on a regular basis. When those other zones are empty, that means deputies from the south end of the county have to shift north to be able to cover those calls, creating a ripple effect on services that can be felt all the way down to Lake Placid at times.

At Monday night’s meeting, some members of the city council wanted to focus on the fact I returned $698,000 to the county this year instead of the inequity in our contract with the city that has existed for years. They wanted to know why the city did not get a similar refund.

As is mandated by law, I returned unspent money to the county. The total this year was a small fraction of the HCSO’s operating budget, and most of the money returned – 94 percent of it, in fact – was from funds that can only be spent for very specific purposes, such as inmate medical costs, or grants for things like E911. That money goes back into the county’s general fund, where it is available for the benefit of all county residents. Avon Park should not expect to get a refund on a contract that fell more than $1.1 million short of covering the cost of providing the contracted services.

If the Sheriff’s Office is to continue to provide law enforcement services to the City of Avon Park, things have to change. We need to add four more deputies and four sergeants (one per shift) to cover a new zone that will be created inside the city limits, which means the contract needs to be in the range of at least $2.5 million per year. That would be $232 per year per Avon Park resident (still the lowest in the county).

I definitely understand that this is not a good time to be discussing tax increases. I know this has been a hard year for everyone. However, the city has to create a strategic plan for moving the funding of law enforcement in the direction that is needed for an agreement that is fair to the rest of the county if they want the HCSO to continue to provide services 365 days from now.

The ball is now in the city council’s court. If they want to work with us to renegotiate the contract to terms that better reflect the true cost of services to their city, we will happily continue to provide law enforcement services to the residents of Avon Park. If the city council would rather bring back the Avon Park Police Department, then, as per the contract, they have a year to figure out how to pay for it.