By DOTTY NIST
Walton County’s jail and animal control function are to become the responsibility of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) as the result of a recent county commission decision.
The decision took place at the Jan. 28 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
Prior to early 2007, the county jail had been under sheriff’s office purview. At that time, the BCC assumed responsibility due to the decision of Ralph Johnson, county sheriff at the time, to relinquish operation of the jail. Since that transition, the jail had operated as a county department under the supervision of the county administrator.
In October 2013, in meetings between Walton County Administrator Larry Jones and the WCSO under Sheriff Mike Adkinson on avenues for streamlining county functions to enhance efficiency of operations, the possibility of alignment of the jail and animal control under the WCSO was discussed. In November 2013, the sheriff’s office followed up by presenting documentation and information supporting the two functions being placed under the WCSO.
In an executive summary presented to the commissioners, it was noted that, historically, sheriffs being responsible for county jails has been predominant throughout the state. It was further argued that putting the full law enforcement process from crime detection to incarceration under the WCSO’s purview would provide for “continuous, uninterrupted supervision…and more effective and efficient management of offenders.”
Another reason put forth in favor of jail transfer to the WCSO was the opportunity for gleaning from prisoners intelligence that could be used to prevent future crimes. It was also argued that combining the records management systems of the sheriff’s office and jail under one operation would increase efficiency and reduce employee work load. Opportunities for streamlining other activities that are now duplicated were also identified.
Regarding the animal control function, it was noted that Florida Statute 588.16 charges the sheriff, deputies, or designees, with authority to impound livestock at large or strays and that statutory responsibility also exists for the sheriff to care for and feed impounded animals. “Additionally,” the summary states, “the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the investigation of all animal-related crimes, including cruelty and abuse cases.”
It was noted that, in addition to the efforts of the WCSO’s patrol officers with cases of this type, one WCSO investigator has been specifically assigned to animal cases.
The argument was made that management of the animal control function would give the WCSO “better visibility of the animal abuse issues within the county” and enable WCSO personnel to investigate and prepare criminal cases involving animals for prosecution by the state attorney in a more thorough and efficient manner.
In response to the presentation, the BCC expressed some concerns and asked for more information and a plan of action for transfer of the departments.
On Jan. 28, the WCSO provided transition plans for the jail and for animal control. Both plans addressed concerns of the commissioners with the assurance that current jail and animal control staff would be employed by the WCSO and that there would be “minimal fiscal impact” with the transfer of the functions.
Both plans provided for a transition period from the time of approval of the transfer until March 3, which would be the final transfer date. For both plans, a WCSO liaison was designated to work with the county to ensure a smooth transition.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander conveyed thanks to the personnel and directors who had served the county at the jail and with Walton County Animal Control over the years , complimenting them on their “outstanding work.”
She said she had done research and reported that out of Florida’s 67 counties, only eight jails are run by county commissions. Comander continued that she understood the efficiencies that could be put into place with the transfer of the two functions.
Comander asked for three conditions with the transfers, the first being that all current employees be retained. In addition, she requested that work squads be kept at current levels or increased. Her third condition was that budgets for the functions be kept at current levels and that future budget increases, if any, be kept in line with those of other county offices, departments and divisions.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows added two additional conditions: that the period animals are held prior to euthanization not be reduced and that the WCSO work with local animal shelters to see that as many animals as possible are saved and adopted out.
With those conditions, Comander moved for approval for an orderly transition of the jail and animal control functions to proceed. The motion carried unanimously.
By DOTTY NIST