Published 10:10 pm Saturday, December 5, 2009
As he walked into the commission chambers for his budget hearing Friday, Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless passed a real-life Santa who was greeting the bell choir from the Open Door School. But he also passed a big stuffed Grinch that is part of the third floor holiday decorations.
As Lawless stood up at the podium to speak, Santa could be heard outside saying, “ho, ho, ho.” Someone inside the commission chambers deadpanned, “I hope he’s coming in here.”
Santa, after all, has something that the county does not: Deep pockets.
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The county has a problem — not much money and lots of crime.
The dilemma now is to figure out how to fund a government essential without the government going into the hole.
A sheriff’s dilemma
Lawless is asking for $2.8 million in 2010. This does not include some jail and utility expenses the county commission pays. The $2.8 million is actually less than he has received this year, Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens said.
“It’s not inflated at all. In fact, we’ll just be able to squeeze by the year unless some major incident happens,” Lawless told the commission.
He said, however, it is difficult to project costs for such things as gasoline for vehicles because fluctuations in price can happen quickly and are beyond anyone’s control.
Why does the sheriff need $2.8 million? Crime is on the increase and has been for years. No one is predicting a decrease in crime in 2010.
Last year, the sheriff’s office fielded 11,102 calls for service. In 2008, 1,867 men and 580 women were incarcerated, a total of 2,447 people.
Stephens pointed out later that since 2007, the final amount appropriated to the sheriff’s office has increased. In 2007, the county spent a total of $2.87 million on the sheriff’s office and jail.
In 2008, that amount increased to $3.1 million and the department is on target to spend $3.2 million by the time this year ends in a few weeks.
Stephens acknowledged that the 2009 sheriff’s office budget was somewhat inflated because of an arbitration award officially given to some sheriff’s office staff this year that was in response to a grievance filed years ago before Lawless was sheriff.
While crime may be on the rise, the amount of money the county has to spend is not.
Stephens estimated that the county’s general fund will have $1.5 million less revenues next year than it did in 2008.
The state contributions to the county, known as Local Government Funds, have been cut repeatedly over the last several years and 2010 will likely be no exception.
In the wake of 2008’s economic recession, the county’s interest income plummeted. Sales taxes, one of the county’s primary sources of general fund income, is also on the decline, leaving the commissioners with severely reduced funds to keep operations for the entire county going.
Lawless said while he has not had to lay anyone off, which is the case in other counties, he has not replaced employees who have either left, retired or died. There have been seven of these situations — eight if you consider Lawless did not replace himself when he was elected sheriff last year. Even if he did hire people for those eight positions, the sheriff said he would still be understaffed.
Lawless has four full-time dispatchers and two employees that split their time between dispatching and other duties, such as corrections.
The agency has 14 full-time corrections officers and two part-timers, two cooks, 11 road deputies, four sergeants who perform the same tasks as road deputies, four clerks and three detectives.
Because the sheriff’s office is short-staffed, employees must work frequent overtime, which, though expensive is still cheaper than hiring additional staff when fringe benefits are thrown into the mix.
Still, the excessive overtime and ever-increasing workload is taking its toll, Lawless said.
Lawrence County’s jail is understaffed, not just by Lawless’ admission but also by state standards.
According to state guidelines, a jail should have one corrections officer for every 12 inmates, meaning Lawrence County should have six officers around the clock.
Lawless only has 14 total to cover 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
However, because it is an older jail, it is “grandfathered in” on some state requirements, meaning the state does not demand the county hire the additional corrections staff.
Stephens acknowledged having an older jail is both a curse and a blessing — an older jail needs repairs but staffing a newer one could potentially bankrupt the county.
“How is it working with Scioto County taking inmates?” Stephens asked.
“Having the deal with Scioto County has been a tremendous benefit,” Lawless replied. “We’re getting 10 beds at a good rate and it has saved us money.”
Before Scioto built its new jail, overflow inmates were frequently taken to Morrow and Clinton counties.
Lawless said the jail is one of the biggest drains on his budget and, in turn, on the county’s as a whole.
The county’s jail houses an average of 70 inmates a day — 20 more than what the jail was built to house. This does not include the 10-20 inmates who are housed out of county in other jails.
Lawless pointed out that while the cost of having a jail is very expensive, the cost of not having one, and having to house all the county’s 70-a-day inmates in other jails, would be astronomical.
“Still, for this county to be without a jail would be devastating,” Lawless said.
It costs an average of $45 a day to house a prisoner at the Lawrence County Jail. That amount is anywhere from $50-80 a day at other jails.
“What kind of grants do you get?” Commissioner Doug Malone asked. “Are there more avenues out there?”
Lawless said he applies for grants routinely and is happy to have the assistance of Mike Boster, the county’s emergency management agency director, in pursuing and applying for grants. He did get two grants this year. One for employee overtime costs. But did not get all the grants he applied for.
When he doesn’t have what he needs, Lawless often resorts to something he wishes he didn’t have to do: He calls other jails to see if they have surplus items they wouldn’t mind giving him.
The sheriff said he has gotten used sleeping mats and inmate uniforms this way. He recently got 45 used sleeping mats. Purchasing those mats new would have cost in $80 each.
Cruisers are sometimes purchased second-hand, too. Last year the county purchased four used cruisers from Lucas County.
Adversity sometimes brings out a resourcefulness that might not exist otherwise and some other officeholders are willing to help Lawless with his plight.
Lawrence County Veterans Service Officer Jack Welz told Lawless if he had any inmates who were veterans, they may be able to obtain some prescriptions at low cost through the V.A. outreach clinic in Portsmouth.
The county is often responsible for the medical care of its prisoners, particularly those who have no health insurance.
Another idea: Stephens said a recent opinion from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office held that counties should have a weight enforcement officer to patrol roadways looking for overweight vehicles and that this officer should be paid out of motor vehicle gas tax funds.
Stephens wondered if a road deputy might be able to do double duty, road patrol and weight enforcement, which would enable the county to use MVGT funds for this employee.
Another idea that has gotten much discussion but no action over the last few years is combining the 911 and sheriff’s office dispatch. It was brought up for discussion again at Thursday’s budget hearing.
“We’ve talked about it for years,” Stephens said. “The way we’re doing it now is not the most efficient way. I think we have to look at doing something.”
Stephens said he thought 911 should be in the sheriff’s control. He said if that were to happen he would expect the sheriff to determine what changes need to be made to the combined system to make it most efficient and effective.
Stephens said approximately $212,000 in a cell phone tax account could be used to pay for any necessary equipment changes.
But Malone said he thought the best way to combine the two services is to allow 911 to handle all dispatching.
“Nothing against the sheriff’s office but I feel it (911 dispatching) should stand alone. That way there would be no favoritism. I’d like to see a board of directors. Like there is at SEOEMS. But this isn’t an easy thing to get accomplished,” Malone said.
Boggs said he did not understand how combining the two entities would save any money.
“I don’t think it would help the budget,” Boggs said.
“I don’t think we can make budget if we don’t do something about 911,” Stephens countered. “I would have no problem with authorizing the sheriff to be in charge of 911 next week.”
Budget hearings continue this week.
Commissioners said they anticipate having a 2010 budget in place by the end of the year.