By DOTTY NIST
At the request of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) and by approval of Walton County commissioners, the state funding previously going to Crime Stoppers of Walton County will now be directed to Emerald Coast Crime Stoppers, which is headquartered in Okaloosa County.
Maj. Graham Fountain of the WCSO, who presented the request, said there had been a preliminary agreement between the WCSO and Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley for Walton County to participate in Emerald Coast Crime Stoppers as an equal partner.
These are private nonprofit organizations that receive “tips” from the public on criminal activity and relay that information to law enforcement and other agencies.
Fountain’s request was approved at the May 8 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
The WCSO request had not been on the preliminary meeting agenda. It was added at the outset of the meeting by a 3-1 vote. Upon learning that there would not only be discussion but that the WCSO would be seeking a decision that afternoon from the BCC on the request, District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander objected to the short notice and voted against putting the request on the meeting agenda. Comander noted that there are “two sides to every story,” and that Walton County Crime Stoppers had not had time to prepare to present theirs.
Fountain told the BCC that, prior to 2002, both Okaloosa and Walton counties had participated in Emerald Coast Crime Stoppers as a joint operation. During the tenure of former Walton County Sheriff Ralph Johnson, Walton County had split off with Crime Stoppers of Walton County due to some sort of disagreement, he said.
Fountain explained that from 40 to 50 percent of local crimes involve both counties and that many of those involve the same people. He maintained that operating jointly with Okaloosa County would make for a more effective program.
Fountain said there had been issues of concern with Crime Stoppers of Walton County over the past year. WCSO began reviewing the Crime Stoppers of Walton County’s financials two months ago and began investigations on a merged Okaloosa-Walton program, he told the commissioners.
Fountain reported that only approximately one-fourth of Crime Stoppers of Walton County’s grant funds have been spent, with the grant period expiring next month. He stated that, however, “lots of money” has been budgeted by the organization for travel by five board members to a convention.
Fountain said that the WCSO learned on May 4 that Crime Stoppers of Walton County’s status as a 501(3)c nonprofit organization had been revoked due to their failure to file paperwork with the state. “They can no longer hold the grant,” he stated.
Other issues with the WCSO’s relationship with the president and vice president of Crime Stoppers of Walton County have resulted in the WCSO “severing our relationship with this group,” Fountain said.
Fountain urged for immediate action by the BCC in order for grant authority for the Walton County program to be removed from the group and transferred to Emerald Coast Crime Stoppers. He maintained that it would take eight to 10 months plus a “considerable fine” for the 501(3)c status to be regained.
Kathleen Larney, current chair for Crime Stoppers of Walton County, told the commissioners that the organization had previously been unaware that paperwork for the 501(3)c had been due, but that it had since been filed. She said this was the first time the organization had been delinquent. “We are in the process of repairing it;” she said of the nonprofit status, “it’s a temporary problem.” She argued that the issue might well be resolved by the next BCC meeting on May 22.
Larney maintained that the vote requested from the BCC would be premature, since the board of Emerald Coast Crime Stoppers had not even been approached on the issue. Why move Walton County’s program to Okaloosa County where, as a smaller county, “we will not have a voice,” she asked.
Other programs have encountered the same problems as Crime Stoppers of Walton County, Larney said, and the state Attorney General’s Office has indicated willingness to work with the organization to file for grants.
“They are revoked,” Fountain countered. “They are not eligible to continue with the grant money,” he argued, adding that the organization is no longer in good standing with the association of crime stoppers organizations. He added that Walton County’s program “will be enhanced” by merging with Okaloosa County and benefiting from their resources.
“We’re all volunteers,” said Crime Stoppers of Walton County board member Betty Letcher. “We’re trying to help Walton County with crimes.”
Letcher said her neighborhood association nonprofit status was revoked without anyone being notified and that the issue was resolved with no problem by filing paperwork.
She added that it was not true that Crime Stoppers of Walton County had plans to spend money to send five board members to a convention.
“I don’t really understand why the sheriff’s office is trying to do away with us,” Letcher said. “What is the real reason?” she asked.
Comander made a motion to table the item to the May 22 BCC meeting. There was no second to her motion.
District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones moved to approve the WCSO request with the condition that, once Crime Stoppers of Walton County had regained its 501(3)c status and was in good standing with its association, the organization would be able to come back before the BCC for further consideration.
The motion was approved 3-1, with Comander voting no.