County splits 911 from LCSOPublished 9:54am Friday, January 11, 2013
Layoffs reduced but still looming
Potentially devastating layoffs to the county’s 911 dispatching center were averted Thursday as the Lawrence County Commissioners reversed course on last year’s move to merge that agency with the sheriff’s office. However one-third of the county’s road deputies are still set to be cut in a little more than a month.
This partial solution came after several days of uncertainty and debate
On Wednesday, Sheriff Jeff Lawless sent out layoff notices to five road deputies, a part-time corrections officer, a part-time sheriff’s dispatcher, 14 part-time 911 dispatchers and the director of 911. Lawless said the notices were forced after the Lawrence County Commissioners cut the sheriff’s budget approximately $400,000 for road deputies and 911 dispatching.
In mid-December the commissioners approved a budget that required a 23.5 percent cut in the salary line item of all officeholders.
“Twenty-two men and women who have served the county faithfully now will no longer have a job,” Lawless told the commissioners at their Thursday meeting. “I think we have weakened Lawrence County to a point where it could be a danger to the citizens. We have just hung a sign at the entrance of Lawrence County saying Criminals, welcome and open for business.’ ”
At the end of March the 911 system was placed under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office merging the payrolls of the sheriff’s five full-time dispatchers and the 911 dispatchers. Union rules require that all part-time employees be cut before full-time workers, which is why 911would have taken the biggest hit under the cuts since 14 of those dispatchers are part-time.
The last year that 911 was an independent agency was in 2011 when that department spent $544,349 on salaries and benefits for five full-time and 14 part-time dispatchers, office expenses and the salary of $45,156 for director Lonnie Best. Last year the sheriff’s office spent $239,825 for its five full-time dispatchers.
According to the county auditor’s office the 2013 budget included $588,394 to cover the salaries and benefits and expenses for the combined 911 system of 10 full-time and 14 part-time dispatchers. That is $195,780 less than what was spent to cover costs when the two systems were separate.
Lawless told the commissioners that the budget mandate has forced him to make cuts that other officeholders have not faced.
“I look at other offices and they are not suffering as we are,” the sheriff said.
Commissioner Bill Pratt said that every officeholder was faced with the same cuts.
“Each office is faced with the same situation as you are,” Pratt told the sheriff.
But to prevent layoffs of the dispatchers Pratt then made a motion to transfer $150,000 from the $258,000 in the half-percent sales tax that was not appropriated for the 2013 budget.
However before the commissioners voted on that motion, Commissioner Les Boggs proposed moving 911 dispatching from the sheriff’s office to free up an additional $75,000 on top of the $150,000 transfer. That $225,000 would be earmarked to fund the sheriff’s five dispatchers, removing them from the 911 budget.
While, according to the county auditor’s office only $585,394 was adopted in the budget for 911 dispatching, Boggs said there was $625,000 available for 911. That figure was approved for 911, but not adopted in the budget, the auditor’s office said.
“We can operate (911) with $550,000,” Boggs said after the meeting. “That will leave $75,000 to transfer to the sheriff’s office.”
Those transfers would enable both dispatching systems to retain all employees, the commission president said.
“It doesn’t change the dollars, but it keeps people working,” Boggs said.
When asked why not transfer the $150,000 to the sheriff’s 911 budget and allow Lawless to run the entire dispatching system, Boggs said, “I think you know how I feel about that. Even the sheriff himself said that (removing 911) is not a bad idea.”
Lawless told the commissioners that while he was given the authority to run the 911 system, he was never given the funds needed for that responsibility.
Throughout the 20-minute exchange between the sheriff and the commissioners, Lawless repeatedly asked for assurances that when money becomes available, it will go toward funding road deputies.
“I have to have a commitment that if money is available, it won’t go to remodel somebody’s office or for lighting at the airport,” Lawless said.
Commissioner Freddie Hayes said he doesn’t understand the conflicting appearances of the county’s financial situation.
“We are in a good situation one week and the next week we’re broke,” Hayes said. “I don’t think we really know what we are doing. But the first money we get will go to the sheriff’s office.”
After the meeting Boggs said the commission will try to find more funding to keep deputies on the road.
“Now we need to look for money to help the sheriff,” he said. “We can’t manufacture money. We anticipate there will be some for the sheriff.”