Meeting heats up as Marion County commission, sheriff tussle over funding

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MARION COUNTY, Fla. —

A firestorm on Facebook triggered a huge crowd at Thursday's Marion County budget hearing.

The County Commission and Sheriff Chris Blair are fighting over funding.

The Marion County  Commission meeting got off to a raucous start with the audience applauding as Sheriff Chris Blair walked in, ignoring Chair Kathy Bryant's call for order.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I will clear this meeting, we will have an orderly meeting," said Bryant.

So many people turned out that the fire marshal ordered people standing in the aisles to head into the courtyard.

Blair said Marion County has 50 percent fewer deputies than other similar counties.

While he thinks the county needs 170 more deputies, he's asking for 20 more, along with new patrol cars. The price tag is $8 million, less than half of what he originally asked for.

So far, the County Commission has said no.

Residents chimed in and many employees complained about old failing equipment.

"Our brothers are left alone in the jail. Left alone with 200 plus inmates. When our radios go dead five times in one shift, we're putting ourselves at risk," said one employee.

Before the meeting started, commissioners seemed unmoved by the crowd.

"It's difficult to believe that simply because the Sheriff's Office has had a change in leadership, that it is now being perceived as an agency in crisis," Bryant said.

There was a big push on social media to side with the sheriff.

The hearing started outside commission offices Thursday evening, but the budget battle has been dragging on for weeks.

The Sheriff's Office insisted it didn't initiate or even encourage the social media blitz, but it apparently did start at the county jail.

A guided tour of the Marion County Jail may seem harmless to some, but on county Commissioner Stan McClain's recent visit, he was accompanied by a couple of executives from a private company that runs prisons.

"It really sent our corrections employees into a whirlwind. Emotions are high," Capt. James Pogue said.

And it's clearly evident on social media. A protest movement has flared up on Facebook.

Hundreds of people who are opposed to any hint of privatizing the jail sided with the sheriff in his tug-of-war with the County Commission over money.

"If you're giving your people increases, then allow our people to get pay increases," Pogue said.

The commission has refused to OK Sheriff Chris Blair's request for more funding, mostly on the grounds that it would require a tax hike.

The sheriff said he needs a budget increase to boost starting salaries for deputies, hire more deputies and replace an aging fleet of patrol cars.

Some suggest the County Commission is operating under a double standard when it comes to spending.

"If you're buying cars that you feel are worn out at 150,000 miles, and you automatically get rid of them, then let us get rid of some cars that have 250,000 miles on them," said Pogue.