New SRO law forcing Osceola  sheriff to make sacrifices

Sheriff Russ Gipson

By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson was about to order body cameras for his officers earlier this year when a school shooting miles away in South Florida killed 17 people.

“The cameras were going to be something great for our citizens,” said Gibson. “Then February 14th took place and we had to change direction and start making concessions.”

That’s because the Sheriff’s Office soon faced the same unexpected

Sheriff Russ Gibson

challenge as every other county in Florida.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, a mandate was signed into law requiring at least one school resource officer (SRO) or other security personal at each elementary and middle school in Florida along with one per every 1,000 students at each

high school.

Signed by Gov. Rick Scott in March, local law enforcement agencies and county governments had roughly five months to fill hundreds of positions. About $97 million was divided among Florida’s 74 school districts, but nothing in the law guarantees funds will extend past this school year.

Still, the state funds weren’t enough.

The Osceola County School District received $3.4 million, but the sheriff’s office still needed $1.5 million to pay salaries and benefits for over 35 new SROs.

Buying body cams or completing construction on an officer training facility in Harmony were no longer feasible, Gibson explained Monday at a county budget reconciliation meeting.

Gibson said his department has trimmed about $5.5 million from its original 2018-19 proposed budget to soften the financial blow of new SROs.

With financial challenges looming large over the department, Gibson said he would support a law enforcement impact fee if the item would ever be presented.

“I’m always in favor of growth paying for itself,” he said.

The sheriff spoke at one of several meetings that will take place in upcoming weeks as department heads and officials attempt to balance a budget that County Manager Don Fisher described as “remarkably challenging.”

The rapidly growing county also needs officers on the street, Gibson said, especially along the West U.S. Highway 192 tourism corridor.

Fisher and Gibson are eyeing a long-vacant property in the area that may serve as a future west side Osceola Sheriff’s Office location.

Currently, the main command center is so crowded, staff is setting up cubicles in the hallway because room is running out, Gibson said.

But the Sheriff’s Office still needs about $1.8 million to purchase the property and building. The item is in the budget request, pending county approval.