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Votes

Public Safety Budget Shows Increase

Sheriff Stephen Simpson asked for 148 new staff members to join his office, but likely will get 37 or fewer under the proposed fiscal year 2003 budget. This, he says, is not enough.

"The reason it's so high is we need to catch up. We're not where we need to be as far as staffing," Simpson said.

The Sheriff's Office would have to hire 50 deputies to meet the national average of staffing one deputy for every 1,000 population, Simpson said. County Administrator Kirby Bowers is recommending the county hire 10 deputies to maintain the office's current staffing rate of .8 deputies per 1,000 population.

"We've never been fully funded every year we put in the request. The list gets longer because of the things that weren't addressed in prior [years], not to mention the new growth and the new needs," Simpson said.

The sheriff's office currently staffs 325 sworn personnel and a total of 428 personnel. Comparatively, the sheriff's office employed a staff of 294 personnel in fiscal year 2003.

"We're in a reactive mode. We want to be more proactive in our policing methods ... and spend more time in our problem areas," Simpson said, mentioning a recent increase in caseload, especially in robberies, theft and stolen vehicle cases.

"We would like to provide a higher level of service, but because of the manpower issues, we don't have the people to work the cases. Some criminal cases don't get the attention that they should have," Simpson said. "More calls coming in affects response time, and that's longer because we're spread thinner."

BOWERS PROPOSED a $34.87 million budget for the sheriff's office, compared to a budget of $30.66 million in 2002 and nearly double the 1999 budget, which was $17.6 million. Spending for the sheriff's office is estimated at four percent of the county's proposed $875.3 million budget.

"Particularly in the aftermath of Sept. 11, we have a heightened concern for public safety," Bowers said.

Sixty percent of county department enhancements or increases are reserved for the sheriff's office and the Department of Fire and Rescue Services. The increases total $8.16 million of $15.11 million, and in the sheriff's office, include $3.21 million for salaries and equipment for 37.5 new full-time positions.

"Everybody likes to see deputies in cars on the streets, but behind that there are other needs people don't see," said Jo Ellen Kerns, senior budget analyst for the county.

The Board of Supervisors may vote out $1.45 million of enhancements proposed for the sheriff's office, along with additional funding allotted for vacant positions on April 1, when the budget will be adopted and the tax rate set.

"He [Simpson] had an awful lot of vacancies that hadn't been filled for a long time. We weren't quite sure he needed everything he asked for," said Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Mercer).

THE BUDGET for fire and rescue services increased from $20.84 million in 2002 to $24.15 million in 2003, funded by local tax support in addition to the funds the 17 individual fire and rescue companies raised.

"There are a lot of resources we could use and programs we could implement," said Robert Griffin, assistant county administrator. "We are covering our primary goal and our primary mission."

The budget increase allows the county to hire career staff to cover a smaller volunteer staff and the recent loss of the proffer system. The county pulled funding from the county’s general fund last year to replace money raised through homeowner association proffers, which state law no longer allows as a funding method to pay for the services. As a result, the county has to provide an additional $2.35 million for fire and rescue services.

"That was done as a stop gap to keep the finances of the volunteer system secure until a new plan was implemented," said Arie Sky, senior budget analyst for the county.

This year, a blank is left in the local tax funding column and is replaced with a proposed property tax increase of $.06, which the Board of Supervisors voted against earlier this month. The tax would have generated $22.81 million for the fire and rescue system. Local funding in 2002 was $19.69 million.

THE FIRE AND RESCUE budget provides funding for 31 full-time positions, including 25 field positions, 3.5 administrative positions and a special events and emergency management position to coordinate public safety coverage at large events.

"The county provides most of the funding associated with volunteer operations at this point," Sky said.

The demand on the county to hire additional career staff is increasing while the size of the staff is not, Sky said. The companies currently staff about 1,200 volunteers and 265 career staff.

"With the growth in the county, it is virtually impossible for the volunteer system to cover the county 24 hours a day," Bowers said. "The number of volunteers we have has remained the same. All the growth in increased coverage is covered by employed personnel."