Editorial: Public Safety should never be political

Audit Autopsy - A Special Series, Part III

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This article is the third in a series focusing on public safety, specifically fire-rescue as now wholly exists under the authority of the Board of County Commissioners. As a recap and as depicted in previous Series entries, we learned the Board opted out of an interlocal agreement to have the Fire Service managed by the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office. In effect for six (6) years, the contract concluded September 30, 2017. The following day the BOCC launched Citrus ‘back to the future’. Or is it just backward? The manufactured justification begged illumination.

The Suncoast Standard posted a letter as transmitted by Commissioner Scott Carnahan on May 11, 2017. This was two days after the BOCC meeting wherein the collective board opted out of the ‘merger’. His letter remains on the Standard’s website and is available for your review. If paying $18,000 for an unnecessary audit is “…using tax dollars to the best of our abilities,” we should be concerned. Apparently speaking for all commissioners the letter advises:  “We do not feel that is happening with co-mingling agencies,”  “…and there is a co-mingling of tax dollars.” Having been in government service for the better part of my life, I don’t remember a time when an elected official admitted to making a decision based on a feeling. An additional concern has to be Mr. Carnahan is the current commissioner assigned to the Fire Services Planning Committee. Citrus citizens shouldn’t be content with an after the fact audit used to bolster an action already taken. Executive decisions should be based on timely and accurate data in the best interest of effectiveness.   Moreover, taxpayer money can be mixed and matched whenever appropriate. This allows the best service to be provided at every level. Cooperation between government entities of every stripe should be lauded.  Such was the collective thinking of the original Public Safety Initiative Task Force —based on expert testimonials. This, in fact, would be the only such panel. There was no subsequent citizen task force weighing this divestiture.

In accord with agreement language, the BOCC had the authority to press the Sheriff’s Office for supporting data—we just can’t be certain if, how and when they did. The CCSO audit response says not.  Ironically, although Commissioner Carnahan chafes at not receiving timely data from the CCSO following requests by the County Administrator, at this writing the Standard awaits a response from the Board regarding their requests to CCSO. A record of the May 9, 2017 meeting clearly indicates the Board made an emotional decision to separate police and fire—admitting they only received the budget figures just prior to the meeting. So why was this most important public safety decision, one having the potential for life and death implication, driven and based on a feeling? Clearly, the Board didn’t have enough time for complete analyses. The commissioners’ own words indicate they made the decision not fully vetting the data now in hand. Why not recess or adjourn altogether for appropriate analysis? We would learn soon enough, rather than wait for the next annual CCSO justification, or refer to the most recent annual CCSO report, the Board commissioned an audit from an outside firm. Troubling.

What is the opposite of ‘without a doubt’? I’m thinking ‘with great certainty’. In advance, during and by the end of the May 9th meeting, Sheriff Prendergast had to be thinking he didn’t need this. Literally, that is. His eloquence in thanking Chief Goodworth for his service was either spontaneous or prepared. It could be debated either way—but either way, the verbal send-off served as a certain message to the Board.

In accordance with Florida statutes, as supported by Attorney General Opinion, a sheriff need not subscribe to the same purchasing processes as the county they serve and protect.  When voters select a Sheriff they are electing a State of Florida Constitutional Officer who is in charge of agency expenditures. He or she has the last word. If the people are not satisfied they get to elect a new sheriff in the next cycle. In providing budget needs to the county commission, thereafter justifying annual spending through the previous year, Florida sheriffs are considered above the fray—until they are not for any number of reasons, not the least of which is criminal activity and/or fraud. Think about it.  Would we want police service held hostage by politicians with an untoward agenda?  Independence for Sheriffs is supported by an AG opinion issued in 1978. (Angela Vick would later vouch for the Sheriff and the agency advising budget returns were the norm). So again I’m thinking: if there was any doubt going into the meeting, Carnahan’s redundant urgings to take backfire had to be music to Sheriff Mike’s ears. Besides, we now know the Prendergast plate was about to be more than full. (Think the Buddy Grant and connected investigations all underway throughout 2017).

Time to fast forward to the meeting of November 28, 2017.

There was much ado by Board members, regarding the CCSO response to the unnecessary audit. They were touting the audit as justification for going back (wards). Rather than providing kudos to the people who took the extra time to guide accountants, the Board chided agency employees for remarking professionally to the report’s ‘observations and findings’. The comments were more than appropriate. Consistent with my own experience, formal explanations are to be viewed as but an illustration of how serious career employees take their job. They weren’t. The Board took the opportunity for veiled swipes at Mike.  The larger issue based on this Special Series unbiased review? The accountants’ report didn’t turn up what the Board was led to expect. So what of it?

This BOCC hyper-focused on an entry in the CliftonLarsonAllen report regarding a command decision to pay for a helicopter hoist overhaul from the fire budget. Previously used by the LEO side of the organization, future plans considered fire service utilization.  Because gyms were available for both fire and police personnel another internal decision assigned dollars from both budgets. It should be noted, quibbling over such “co-mingling” came from neither fire nor police. It happened after the fact from a micromanaging Board. Ignored because it didn’t fit previous dais narrative was the following quote: “Except as noted in Finding 001, [the helicopter hoist] we determined that the fire/rescue service’s revenues and expenditures were in compliance with the interlocal agreement and properly recorded.” To reiterate:  “…in compliance…properly recorded.” Considering that “…838 transactions totaling $2,455,278. were tested for proper recording and supporting documentation” without fraud, this expensive external audit fell way short of serving up a good reason for the separation. But, the deed was already done.

This is where the Standard must reiterate an internal audit in advance of this unnecessary separation would have served Citrus taxpayers better.  As it stands, our BOCC wasted $18,000 only to confirm the outside audit was a waste of time and money—although in the person of Scott Carnahan they continue to spin it positively. Want to take it further?  Theoretically, the overhauled $58,000 fire hoist is now only available to the police chopper. There goes the training and potential operational utilization by Fire Rescue. This is what can happen with micromanagement. Citizens can only hope there will continue to be cooperation within the ranks of both organizations thus allowing dual usage of equipment and gyms. Special note to Commissioners: you can represent the people while supporting career employees.

The new Fire Rescue Chief is Craig Stevens. From all we’ve heard, he is well rounded and suited to the upcoming challenge. He stands on the shoulders of Jim Goodworth and Larry Morabito. We would be remiss to not likewise recognize the efforts of Joe Meek. This series doesn’t exist save for the merging and unmerging as initially facilitated by Meek. We intend to meet and interview Chief Stevens soon. His overall vision for the safety of Citrus should be a paramount concern. As the combined resident, visitor, and transient population ticks up (think Suncoast II here), proper Fire Rescue appropriations should be a Board priority.  The Standard looks forward to facilitating community conversations helping the new Chief move Fire Rescue forward toward the brighter future we all need.

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