SEBRING — “I would love to have a traffic unit,” Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman said Tuesday after the nighttime County Commission meeting.
However, when Blackman asked his command staff to come up with a cost for starting up a traffic enforcement unit this year, the price tag was just short of $1 million — approximately $900,000 — in personnel, equipment and training.
That’s for four deputies and a sergeant, all the vehicles and the shift scheduling to provide 24-hour coverage, seven days a week.
It also represents a 27% increase to his agency when the Board of County Commission has asked all county departments and constitutional officers to hold their budget requests to a 3.5% increase or less.
“Our deputies are doing a lot of traffic (enforcement),” Blackman said.
Tickets & crashes
Of the last three years, even prior to when Blackman was elected to his post in November 2016, the numbers of citations written are as follows:
• 2016 — 1,619 citations
• 2017 — 1,900 citations
• 2018 — 2,802 citations
• 2019, for the first two quarters – 1,703 citations
His deputies also work traffic crashes when Florida Highway Patrol troopers are not available or too far away to clear an accident scene quickly.
“We work it if it’s 30 minutes or more (wait),” Blackman said. “I don’t want to ask our citizens to stand around in this heat for a half hour.”
Total traffic crashes worked between Jan. 1, 2016, and 11:59 p.m. Tuesday add up to 3,611, which Blackman said equal 46% of the crashes in the county.
According to Sheriff’s Office staff, that total represents the number of traffic crash reports generated.
While it may not be an exact number, it’s a good representation of the crashes that rose to the level of needing a report.
Talk of a dedicated traffic enforcement unit has been in the community since the unit was disbanded by Blackman’s predecessor, Susan Benton.
Questions arose last November when Blackman laid back a total of $1.3 million to county coffers from his 2017-018 budget.
He said the funds he returned were not available for salaries or raises, which was why he could not use them to hire school resource deputies or traffic deputies.
The funds he paid back, he said, consisted of delayed, unneeded or deferred capital purchases:
• $490,000 from Account 420 for administrative services, the general fund and law enforcement.
• $460,000 from Account 520 for the detention department.
• $13,000 from Account 320 for judicial security.
• $73,000 from Account 520 for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, or SCAAP.
Blackman said SCAAP reimburses jails for the prorated costs of housing criminal aliens — those with felony charges or at least two misdemeanors — for more than three calendar days in any given year.
Blackman said his agency received, as he recalls, approximately $18,000 from SCAAP in 2014, $43,000 in 2015 and $20,000 in 2016.
Other funds reimbursed to the county included grants, such as the E911 grant. If it’s not all spent, Blackman said, he has to give it back.
He had to clear his accounts before applying again for the E911 grant for 2018-19, he said.
Another such grant was $60,000 for the Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Adapt unit. The program stays in place, but funding must rotate out each year.
Blackman said he handed back $400,000 in 2016-17, so the surplus is never constant.
Last fall’s property value increase was only 1.97%, compared with 4.56% this year.
The 3.5% ceiling has been put in place to ensure the county has a fund balance to cover damage recovery and cleanup for another storm like Hurricane Irma.
As of yet, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to send the remaining $4.3 million of the $14.9 million the county requested in reimbursements.
A check for just under $7 million from the big total arrived in May. It was reduced by administrative costs at the federal and state level.
However, not only is the remaining $4.3 million not expected to arrive in time to be counted in the 2019-20 county budget, it goes in the general fund and not directly to the Sheriff’s Office.
In defense of his deputies and traffic enforcement, Blackman stated in a guest column to the Highlands News-Sun that from October 2018 until the end of March, his empty cars — mannequin-manned cars stationed at intersections known for numerous and serious wrecks — actually calmed reckless and aggressive drivers.
He said deputies were usually not far away from the empty cars, running radar.
Occasionally, he stationed a deputy in one of those “empty” cars to run radar.
Blackman said the number of crashes at those intersections dropped by 20.4% compared to the same time frame the previous year.
Fatalities dropped by 33%, he said.
During that time — Oct. 4, 2018 through March 31 this year — deputies made 7,090 traffic contacts because of infractions, wrote 2,326 citations, gave 3,085 written warnings and 1,649 verbal warnings and made 30 DUI arrests.
Blackman said he was proud of 7,000 traffic stops in a span of a little more than six months by 75 uniformed deputies who patrol 1,100 square miles and answer 90,000 calls every year.