Okaloosa County debates funding for law enforcement system overhaul

SHALIMAR — The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has used the same records management and computer-aided dispatch system for the past 25 years.

Now Sheriff Eric Aden and others in the county’s criminal justice system are looking for a change.

“In our line of work, it’s extremely critical to share information,” Aden told Okaloosa County commissioners last week. “In a violent crime, were called to assist them. We can’t see their information on the CAD, but we can see if we change to this system with the interoperability.”

On June 20, the Okaloosa County Commission discussed spending $1.4 million for a new communications system that the Sheriff’s Office says would allow it to share critical information with other agencies better and serve the community more efficiently.

While commissioners seemed to support the new system, they disagreed on how it should be paid for. In the end, unclarity about who would be responsible for “successful implementation” across multiple departments led to the commission tabling the discussion until the next meeting on July 18.

Issues with the current system

As time has passed, the Sheriff’s Office says the current software provider for the system has not been providing the customer service that the Sheriff’s Office had when it first acquired the system. Sheriff’s officials have come to think the program is not worth the money the OCSO is paying.

With the current system, Aden said the Sheriff’s Office could not communicate as effectively as it would like with other law enforcement entities in Okaloosa County, such as the Crestview, Fort Walton Beach, Valparaiso and Niceville police departments. For example, if the OCSO assisted the Fort Walton Beach Police Department with a call, the OCSO might not be able to see the profile of a person suspected of committing a crime.

Aden also said if the Sheriff’s Office delivered an arrested individual to the Okaloosa County Jail, the jail would have to reinput information because of the lack of information-sharing between agencies.

“We are a department full of spreadsheets and Word documents,” Okaloosa County Jail Director Nolan Weeks said. “It’s unimaginable what we could do with this technology.

The Sheriff’s Office said implementing the new system would benefit all public safety and judicial services within Okaloosa County by eliminating redundancy and increasing efficiency.

That could result in a reduced emergency response time for the county’s residents.

How much would this new system cost?

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the start-up costs for the new system are broken down into five parts:

  • Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and Public Safety Agencies: $901,285

  • Okaloosa County Jail: $97,339

  • Okaloosa County Clerk (interoperability only): $41,000

  • Pre-trial services, state attorney’s office, Fort Walton Beach police, Valparaiso police, Niceville police, and Crestview police (interoperability only): $246,000

  • Additional contingency (10%): 128,562.40

The total funding request comes to $1,414,186.40. The Sheriff’s Department is asking that the start-up costs come from the county’s surtax. Annual costs thereafter would be built into the Sheriff’s Office’s annual budget.

The sheriff did not include an estimate on the annual costs of the system after startup, nor did any commissioners ask at the meeting. By print deadline Friday afternoon, the Sheriff’s Office had not provided an estimate on future costs.

In 2017, the county approved a half-percent infrastructure surtax for five years. Voters approved the surtax with in a ballot referendum the following year, passing it with 62% of the vote.

“This is a sales tax that everybody that makes a purchase in Okaloosa County pays,” Matt Turpin, chairman of the Infrastructure Surtax Committee, said in a 2022 County Commission meeting.

‘One hundred percent support this,’ but …

Commissioner Mel Ponder started off the conversation by asking about the “carry cost” of continuing to fund the older system in the short term.

Aden said the OCSO would still have to pay the previous provider during the transition because the data transfer would take a significant amount of time.

“One hundred percent support this,” Commissioner Nathan Boyles said. “One hundred percent do not support this spending out of surtax for this project.”

Boyles said the county has the budget resources to fund the project, but surtax dollars should be spent on “tangible things that they (citizens) could see, feel, and touch.”

Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel agreed.

“One hundred percent I’m for this project. … I believe it should also come out of general revenue,” she said.

Ponder said their concerns were a double standard, noting that the county used $25 million in surtax money to improve the emergency communication system in 2022. The previous system was also 25 years old.

“We just funded a $25 million system that included all kinds of software tied to it, so how can we say it’s good there but not good here?”

Commissioner Paul Mixon said of using the surtax for the new project, “I thought it did fit.”

Mixon quoted the referendum that put the surtax in place, “…essential law enforcement/public safety facilities and vital equipment…”

“I see this as extremely vital,” he said. “I don’t look for the recurring monthly cost to be paid out of surtax; that will come from their budgets.”

Chairman Trey Goodwin asked what would be given up elsewhere by using surtax funds for this project.

According to Okaloosa County Public Works Director Jason Autrey, the projects currently slated to be funded by surtax will not be affected by allocating the $1.4 million to the law enforcement communications overhaul.

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What would be the timetable for implementing the system?

Goodwin asked the Sheriff’s Office how soon the system could be implemented.

Maj. David Allen of the OCSO told the board the data transfer to the new system could take about six to eight months. Once the board has decided, OCSO said they would start the acquisition immediately and could take up to 60 days to finalize a deal with a new software vendor.

Sheriff’s officials said they would like to start the project now because they would work on it through their “slower season” and be ready by the summer of 2024.

Who will be accountable?

After a motion by Mixon, seconded by Ponder, with an amendment by Boyle, commissioners began asking about the purchase status.

Okaloosa County Clerk of Court and Comptroller JD Peacock II said that the sheriff is in the procurement process, the clerk of court has taken action on his part, and the jail is finalizing a quote for its systems.

“This thing has come to us very backward,” Boyles said. He then questioned who would be accountable for “successful implementation.”

“Because you are the funding entity, that gives you the authority to impose your will,” Peacock said.

Ponder didn’t seem to like the answer.

“There seems to be no conductor driving the train … with everyone doing their own thing,” he said. Then he withdrew his second on the motion. Mixon then withdrew the motion.

Commissioners will discuss the matter again at their next meeting on July 18.

This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Okaloosa County considers criminal justice communication overhaul.

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