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County Commissioners face challenging agenda

Mickey Starling: Greene Publishing, Inc.

Madison County Commissioners met on Wednesday, May 23, with a host of difficult items on the agenda. The meeting began with Rick Stanford, Commander of The Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 758, in Tallahassee, giving a brief description of the history of the Purple Heart, an award given to military personnel who are wounded or killed in combat while performing meritorious acts of bravery while in combat.

During the Commissioners' meeting, a proclamation was read by Clerk of Court Billy Washington, citing Madison County as a Purple Heart County. The proclamation was also passed by the Madison City Commissioners. This declaration pledges to support and remember all vets in our community who bravely fought to maintain the freedoms we enjoy.

The Commissioners also recognized and showed appreciation for the County's emergency medical teams as part of Emergency Medical Service week of Sunday, May 20 to Saturday, May

26. Washington also read a proclamation recognizing the services that these folks provide on a daily basis.

Next on the agenda was further discussion of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act. MCSO Sheriff Ben Stewart noted that the previous week was National Law Enforcement Week and that their "proclamation" was to "fly our flags at half-staff for the whole d**n week. Thank y'all. That's where we're at," said Stewart. Stewart went on to describe the Marjory Stoneman Bill as having elements of "silliness and a lot of extra work" for both the Madison County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) and the Madison County School Board.

Stewart reminded the Commissioners that the Florida Legislature had allocated $387,000 to the School Board in segmented funds to help implement the new law. Stewart requested the full $647,000 needed to employ a school resource officer (SRO) at every school and two SROs at Madison County Central School (MCCS).

Stewart then acknowledged that the amount of money needed was unreasonable and that a sensible alternative must be chosen to meet state requirements. Stewart suggested protecting the more vulnerable schools: Lee Elementary School, Pinetta Elementary School, and Greenville Elementary School by providing each with an SRO. There is already one SRO at Madison County High School and two at MCCS. Due to the close proximity of Madison Creative Arts Academy to the MCSO and the closeness of James Madison Preparatory High School to the Madison Police Department, no deputies are being recommended. These recommendations would allow the School Board to stay within the $387,000 budget, $77,000 of which is allocated to the charter schools. Stewart indicated that the charter schools should receive SROs as soon as funds become available. Until then, the charter schools would rely on the Guardian Program to provide security personnel for their facilities. Stewart lamented the fact that he is liable for the training and insurance of personnel employed through the Guardian Program. The obvious concern is the possibility that these individuals may lack the skills and experience that law enforcement officers possess, and there is only about a month given for training Guardian security personnel. To comply with the new law using only law enforcement officers would cost $647,000, almost twice the state allotted amount. Stewart further stressed the difficulty of finding additional deputies in what has become a climate of competition, with area counties able to pay more than Madison County can offer. "I've lost four deputies since January, which is the biggest turnover rate that we've ever had," said Stewart. "We are at the bottom of the rung."

Another area of concern for the MCSO is providing vehicles for new SROs. Since every county in Florida is attempting to comply with the new SRO requirements, vehicles have been difficult to locate. Undersheriff Epp Richardson petitioned the Board to allow the MCSO to reserve vehicles soon in order to have them available before the new school term begins on Monday, Aug. 13.

Richardson updated the Commissioners on efforts to reduce inmate medical costs. One suggestion proposed was the outsourcing of medical oversight to a company that would greatly reduce medical expenditures. Richardson estimated that inmate medical costs could easily reach $80,000 this year.

Another hot item was unauthorized fishing tournaments at Cherry Lake, often resulting in too many boats on the water at a time. Currently, seven boats are allowed at any given time. To exceed the seven boat limit, permission has to be granted from the County Commissioners, which has been done for authorized tournaments. Stewart has recommended that a notice to appear process be put into place so that violators can be prosecuted. Further meetings between Stewart, County Attorney Tommy Reeves and Madison County Judge Bailey Browning were suggested by the Commissioners in order to work out the notice to appear process. The Commissioners also discussed requiring one member of each fishing tournament to remain on the ground to help enforce the seven boat limit.

The Commissioners revisited issues concerning the purchase of property along I-10 for the development of a NAPA Service Center. The original request from Greg and Ann Vickers was for 10 acres, but was reduced to five acres, with a right of first refusal so they could match any offers made from other parties on the other five acres. The prominent discussion on the project was about storing wrecked vehicles on the site, creating an eyesore along the interstate. Madison County Development Council Chairman Ed Meggs was concerned that selling the five adjacent acres would be difficult in the future. "You're going to have wrecked vehicles on site all the time. How do we protect it from looking like a junkyard?," said Meggs. After a lengthy discussion between Greg Vickers and the Board, Vickers assured the Commissioners that all wrecked vehicles would be stored on the company's Cherry Lake property until a building was in place for indoor storage of vehicles at the interstate location. Reeves suggested that he be allowed to draft a contract that included aesthetics and right of first refusal conditions for the Board to consider before voting. The Board passed a motion for the contract to be readied for a future meeting.

Madison County Community Bank was awarded Line of Credit Term Loans for future paving projects in the County.

Greene Publishing, Inc. Photo by Mickey Starling, May 23, 2018
Sheriff Ben Stewart (left) and Undersheriff Epp Richardson (right) addressed the Madison County Commissioners concerning budgeting and staffing issues surrounding the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act.

The next meeting of the Board of County Commissioners is A special meeting on Friday, June 1, at 4 p.m. The meeting will take place at 229 SW Pickney Ave., in Madison.

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