Ocala Sheriff Blair: The First Year

STORY BY KEITH CHARTRAND
PHOTOS BY CHRIS REDD

It was inside the Louisiana Superdome on the night of August 18, 1988 that then presidential candidate George H. W. Bush made an emphatic pledge, a promise to the American people. The pledge, as part of Bush’s Republican Party acceptance speech, contained just six words, no word longer than five letters. While small in length, the promise had an enormous impact three months later at the polls and during Bush’s presidential term. “Read my lips: no new taxes,” Bush said in front of thousands of Republican Party backers inside the Superdome and millions more watching on television. Many political pundits believed the emphatic pledge made Bush a man of conviction, one who stood for something and ultimately won him the election against Michael Dukakis. Yet there were tax increases during Bush’s tenure in office. “Read My Lips: I Lied” was one headline the day after news broke of tax increases being put on the table by the President.

Saying one thing and not following through on it not only hurt Bush but the entire Republican Party. Bush went from an extremely high approval rate of 79% to a mediocre 56%. The GOP was divided with many distancing themselves from the President. In Bush’s failed re-election attempt, fellow Republican Pat Buchanan and eventual president Bill Clinton portrayed Bush as a politician that couldn’t be trusted because of his about-face on taxes. Bush’s promise followed by his reversal is one of the more famous political promises that never came to fruition.

While it wasn’t said on as big of a stage as Bush nor filled with as much enthusiasm and forcefulness, President Barack Obama lied about the Affordable Health Care Act. “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” Obama said. “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.” Regardless of the scope of the election and the office held – whether it is the presidency of the United States, a county school board position or a city judge – some promises made on the campaign trail and during tenures in office never come true. Some politicians may have the greatest intentions and fight daily through political and fiscal hurdles for them; hurdles they had no idea existed until they stepped it office. Ultimately their pledge fails to be carried out because of the hurdles.

Other politicians will say anything because it is the right thing to say at the time to get votes then do a complete about-face when called to action. During his campaign to become Marion County Sheriff, Chris Blair said if he were elected to the highest law enforcement position in the county he would do the following: ~ Flatten the Sheriff’s Office from the top. “It’s top heavy; too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” ~ Redirect funding from administrative salaries to hire more patrol deputies. ~ Eliminate wasteful spending “without raising taxes.” ~ Drastically reduce the county’s crime rate. ~ Reestablish units that Sheriff Dean disbanded such as serving warrants and investigating street crimes. ~ Evaluate the entire Sheriff’s Office by other law enforcement personnel and volunteers. ~ Establish a Citizen’s Academy for the public to learn more about the sheriff’s office. ~ Have an open and transparent administration.

Did Chris Blair keep most of his campaign promises? Yes. Did he keep all of them? No. Has he fought to keep his promises only to realize pre-existing hurdles will prevent him from keeping his promises? Yes. Did he do a complete about-face when called to action? Yes, only after the hurdles became too big to get over.

Blair served in the Marion County Sheriff’s Office for 35 years in several capacities before taking office. He moved up the ladder from a deputy, to Major Crimes Unit detective, to Major Crimes Unit supervisor, to Street Crimes Unit and Drug Task Force detective, to district commander, to captain, to assistant bureau chief, to major, and bureau chief. All those years of putting his life on the line for the county’s public safety would prepare Blair for most of the day-to-day work he would encounter when he stepped into office on January 8, 2013 but not everything.

Any rookie politician can put out campaign promises – some reasonable, some bold yet realistic and some drastic. Being able to fulfill every promise, especially bold and drastic ones, can be extremely difficult. It is even harder if the elected official hasn’t sat in the office and knows its situation. “Sometimes what you campaign on and the reality of what the office is when you get in are different,” said Ocala Mayor Ken Guinn. “You have to be careful what you say during the campaign.” Guinn was speaking in general campaign terms, not specifically to what Blair promised during his campaign. Yet the reality of what the Marion County Sheriff’s Office was when Blair took over and what he thought it was, were two completely different things. “I knew what some of the challenges were. I didn’t know all of the challenges,” Blair said during a 40-minute, one-on-one interview with Ocala Magazine. Blair’s main focus, his campaign “battle cry”, was there were too many supervisors at the top of the Sheriff’s Office; Dan Kuhn, his Republican counterpart, being one of them. It sickened Blair that there was $2.3 million spent in supervisor salaries and there was one supervisor for every 3.5 deputies. He called it top heavy: too many chiefs and not enough Indians. He planned on flattening the organization from the top and wanted to hire more deputies for a depleted staff. “We ran on that,” said Blair. “We were too top heavy. We needed more boots on the ground.” Critics, including the aforementioned DeCastro, were too quick to call out Blair when he announced a reorganization of upper management during Blair’s very first day in office. “First thing he (said he) was going to do was get rid of the big shots and create more jobs for the officers,” said DeCastro. “The first thing he did though was bring on more generals; first thing.”

Blair announced during his induction ceremony that Fred LaTorre would be the Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy; Tommy Bibb would be the chief of the Special Investigations Bureau, and the newly-created Professional Compliance Bureau, and would be run by Don Maines. Blair wanted experienced lawmen around him. LaTorre, Bibb and Maines have a combined for 99 years of law enforcement experience. The idea these positions were additions to the MCSO is false. “We are 24 supervision positions less today than when I took over in January of 2013,” said Blair. “We saved $1.8 million (in salaries).” Yes, Blair promised to flatten the Sheriff’s Office from the top and he delivered. With that $1.8 million saved in salaries Blair could then fulfill another campaign promise: redirect funding from administrative salaries to hire more patrol deputies. That didn’t happen though. “My plan at that time was to put more boots on the ground, more correction officers in the jail,” said Blair. “However when we were going through our budget, an increase came out of Tallahassee (for) retirement and medical which was $1.7 million for the entire Sheriff’s Office. It ate up the $1.8 million I wanted to (use to get) more boots on the ground. That actually didn’t take place. I wasn’t able to do that.” No politician, regardless of experience, could see such an ordinance coming let alone be able to maneuver budgetary dollars to keep a campaign promise. Yet putting more boots on the ground was part of Blair’s battle cry and he hasn’t been able to execute it.

According to Blair, the budgetary problems across the entire Sheriff’s Office has made his tenure very difficult. “One of the biggest challenges (we face) is the depreciation; we were depreciated about $24 million dollars,” said Blair. “That is vehicles, equipment and capital outlay. That takes a toll on this agency. Everyone was stunned when the outside auditors came in and said you are $24 million depreciated. Until you get here, you don’t know about the depreciation. I don’t think everyone realizes the severity of it. I inherited it.” This is a classic example of a hurdle Blair had no idea existed until he took office.

How did the MCSO get to the point of being depreciated by $24 million? MCSO Public Information Officer James Pogue, who sat in on the 40 minute interview, pointed to the previous administration for the fiscal shortcomings. “The last five years of the previous administration, (Sheriff Ed Dean) wasn’t replacing any equipment,” said Pogue. “He wasn’t replacing cars, computers and servers like we needed to so our equipment value was way down. They weren’t paying overtime. What the administration was doing was handing out comp time. They increased the limits where everybody (had a lot of time collected). If you have 250 hours of comp time, that is money. Eventually you either have to lay them off which we can’t afford to do because we don’t have enough people (it’s a manpower issue) or you have to pay them.” “The longer that time stays on the books and the (longer) they are here, it becomes more valuable to them and more expensive to the county,” said Blair.

Pogue also pointed out that because Sheriff Dean handled the entire budget, as opposed to each bureau chief being responsible for the department’s own finances. No one had any idea how much money was set aside. “There was no one who could have known the real true condition of the budget until someone else came in and studied it,” said Pogue. According to Blair, the only way he could hire deputy sheriffs and get patrol cars was with monies allocated from MSTU’s (municipal service taxing units), property tax.

When he stepped into office, Blair walked into another hurdle he didn’t know about. “We were $4.5 million in the hole on the MSTU when I took office,” said Blair. “Last year they made that up by raising the property tax from 2.81 to 3.21 per thousand but I didn’t gain anything.” Had Blair had these figures – $24 million depreciated and a deficit of $4.5 million in MSTUs – before he entered office, he said it may have made his challenges much easier. Had he had the numbers while out on the campaign trail, it would have been an easy sell to the voters. “I would have been able to say, ‘Look, the agency is not where it needs to be. It does need a new face. It does need a new person. A law enforcement officer with 35 years of experience can accomplish it,’ ” said Blair. “It would have proved that it was broken,” said Pogue.

Blair has fixed some of the Sheriff’s Office depreciation and deficiencies. But in order to get what he wanted more than anything else – more deputies to make the county safer – he somewhat went against what he said he would do. During his opening statement at the August 9, 2012 sheriff’s debate, Blair said raising taxes would not be an option in order to achieve his goals. “I plan on putting more boots on the ground to protect you,” Blair said during the debate. “I plan on reallocating manpower, eliminate wasteful spending without raising your taxes.” Unequivocally, Blair has eliminated wasteful spending. Slicing the numerous supervisor positions would be one example. Yet, in order to get more deputies on the ground and up-to-date equipment, he asked the Marion County Commissioners in the summer of 2013 to a put a half-cent sales tax before voters to get the MCSO out of the hole. “I am the one that said we do need to look at a sales tax; I took the lead on that,” said Blair during the sit-down interview. “It is the only way for public safety to get to where we need it to go. It would serve the Fire Deparrtment, the Sheriff’s Office, and the cities of Dunnellon, Belleview and Ocala.”

Blair’s statement of not raising taxes wasn’t his campaign battle cry. It wasn’t repeatedly said over and over. It wasn’t filled with nearly as much enthusiasm and forcefulness as Bush during his acceptance speech. It was said just once but Blair did say he would eliminate wasteful spending without raising taxes and then a year later asked for a tax increase. The other campaign promises Blair made he has kept.

Blair hoped to drastically reduce the county’s crime rate. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the crime rate in Marion County decreased by 5.1% over the same time period in 2012. An internal report shows the MCSO’s fugitive unit, one of the office’s five-team crime suppression units, reduced the number of outstanding fugitive arrest warrants from 5,805 when Blair took office to 4,663 at the end of 2013.

He promised to reestablish units that were disbanded under Sheriff Dean. In addition to the fugitive unit, a drug interdiction unit, a tactical investigation unit as well as north and south property crimes units have been formed. These crime suppression units have taken criminals off the streets, resulting in the county’s crime rate reduction.

The office was, in fact, evaluated by over 70 different people. According to Pogue, it was a cross section of people. Some had law enforcement experience from other jurisdictions, some were retired MCSO personnel while others were business leaders in the community. “Everyone (in the Sheriff’s Office) was interviewed,” said Blair. “I wasn’t interested in names; I was interested in feedback. It gave me a direction of where the problems were. This was a normal person talking to me who could be open and honest.” After a 12 year hiatus, the Citizen’s Academy returned so, according to Blair, the public could learn what the Sheriff’s Office does and the daily challenges it faces.

When George H.W. Bush took office, the high growth the country experienced in the late 1980’s didn’t carry over into his tenure. When Bush said, “Read my lips: no new taxes” there was an assumption the economy would continue to prosper. It didn’t. Along with rising budget deficits and mandatory spending, Bush’s promise was looking bleak in the first year. The can was kicked down the road and talks of deep cuts and tax increases were postponed until 1990. A Democrat-controlled Congress refused to agree to any massive spending cuts with some tax increases the year prior. Bush’s proposed budget a year later, with steep spending cuts and no new taxes, was dismissed by Democrats. A government shutdown loomed which would have triggered automatic spending cuts. Ultimately, a 10% surtax was placed on the top income tax bracket as well as new excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco products as well as automobiles. Bush had the greatest intentions when he said ‘No new taxes.’ He fought daily through political and fiscal hurdles for them. He had no idea the economy was going to falter, a massive hurdle. Ultimately his pledge failed because of the economic hurdle and a Democratic Congress that refused to work with him. Blair too had the greatest intentions when he said he would put more boots on the ground by redirecting administrative salaries. That he would eliminate wasteful spending without raising taxes. He hasn’t been able to do it because of the massive hurdles in front him; hurdles he knew nothing about before he took office.

He has been presented with a lot of different issues when he took over,” said Guinn. “I would say he has addressed them as best as he can.”

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