Marion commissioners appear unlikely to budge on sheriff's request for more cars

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MARION COUNTY, Fla. —

Marion County commissioners had some harsh words for the sheriff's department after a Channel 9 Eyewitness News story on the condition of the department's patrol cars.

On Friday Channel 9's Renee Stoll reported about the department using Facebook to post pictures of their broken-down vehicles and equipment, after county commissioners denied budget increases.

Commissioners didn't respond to Stoll's requests for comment on the story, so Tuesday night she caught up with the commissioners at a town hall meeting.

The commissioners made it clear to Stoll that they believe that Sheriff Chris Blair has cuts he could make elsewhere to buy new patrol cars.

"Well they're certainly taking an advantage of an opportunity, aren't they?" said Marion County Commission Chairman Carl Zalak III.

According to the sheriff's office officials, nearly 70 percent of the agency's patrol cars have more than 100,000 miles on them, and they said cars have broken down on their way to calls, causing concern for public safety.

Last year the sheriff was denied a budget increase for cars and with more budget talks around the corner it doesn't look like that will change.

"The sheriff is saying that he can't do anything else within his $75 million budget," said Zalak. "I find that hard to believe on my part."

Commissioner Earl Arnett agrees with Zalak, and said the sheriff needs to prioritize his spending. He said one cut could be the entire Marion County Jail.

"As far as the jail, there are private sector jail operations. That's something that needs to be looked at. That is an essential part of our community. It's not an essential part of the sheriff's department," said Arnett.

A spokesperson with the sheriff's office told Stoll the jail recently scored a hundred percent on an inspection and has one of the lowest food costs in the state.

Zalak also suggested car sharing with newer patrol cars.

"If you're concerned so much so that a car's going to break down, that someone's going to get hurt in pursuit, wouldn't you make sure that they're in a brand new car? Wouldn't you bring that guy back and meet at the Jiffy Store so they could switch cars?" asked Zalak.

A spokesperson with the sheriff's office said that sharing patrol cars would just rack up miles on the newer cars, therefor not alleviating the problem.