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Okaloosa budget woes: County dealing with deficit

Okaloosa budget woes: County dealing with deficit

Low taxes or adequate public safety - what's more important?

Commissioners in Okaloosa County are having to consider it as they begin to make decisions in the coming budget year.

The commissioners are having to come up with creative solutions to fix the budget deficit of almost $3 million.

Every department, from the county sheriff's office to the local libraries, face cuts and sees a future without cost of living increases for employees.

Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley said his situation is dire.

"We ask year after year after year after year on a shoestring budget. It's usually the employee that is the one who is suffering because of the shoestring budget," Ashley said. "At some point, you've got to get past this mentality that you work off a milk crate and sit under a tin shed to do your job. Nobody wants to sit in traffic, citizens don't want storm water running through their houses after a heavy rain. deputies are tired of not having back up for calls. We had 48 officers assaulted last year."

As violent crime increases, the jail population increases; leading to unintended consequences on the county's line item. Sizable medical bills for a couple of inmates with medical problems forced the county to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their medical expenses.

It's a budget shortfall in the county, which prides itself on having some of the lowest taxes in the state.

The deficit has brought some creative solutions to the table - using tourism development money to cover some costs of law enforcement and beach safety.

But balancing the budget will still be tough without either a cut or a property tax increase said Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel.

"Unfortunately, we have kicked the can down the road for the last number of budget cycles, we've looked under most of the rocks," Commissioner Ketchel said. "One thing I am committed to is making sure we are taking care of our employees. I am committed to taking care of the sheriff because I feel that one of the roles of the commission is public safety. It may mean we make decisions to not pave roads as quickly. this is where the rubber meets the road."

Public safety will give their budget review at the end of the month. Per their budget document, the commission plans to have a budget in place by September for the 2018 fiscal year.

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