Public Safety Budgets Under Scrutiny

Public Safety Budgets Under Scrutiny

Supervisors indicate intent to support proposed public safety budget.

The Board of Supervisors began its work on the county budget this week, by delving into the enhancements requested by the county's public safety agencies, including fire and rescue, the Sheriff's Office and community corrections.

In February, County Administrator Kirby Bowers proposed a budget with an advertised real property tax rate of 97.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. The fiscal plan totals approximately $1.38 billion in appropriations to the county government and Loudoun County Public Schools. The proposed fiscal plan includes $887.5 million for the school system, $438 million for county expenditures, $46.7 million for the new fire and rescue tax district and $8.2 million for the Comprehensive Services Act for At-Risk Youth (CSA).

The 97.5 cent tax rate would represent an increase of approximately 2 percent in the average residential tax bill, or $85. Bowers also prepared budgets that showed what enhancements would be included at an advertised tax rate of 95.5 cents and the current rate of 89 cents.

This year, the board chose to hold straw votes until the end of the budget process instead of taking them as it progressed through the budget. The work session time will be used to ask department representatives questions and analyze the necessity of their requested enhancements.

THE LARGEST REQUEST this year came from the Sheriff's Office. The department is requesting $3.132 million in additional local tax funding and 42.71 additional full-time employees. Among the new employee requests are 5.35 school resource officers to staff every high school and middle school in the county, including Stone Hill Middle School, which will open in the fall.

"Unfortunately juvenile crime is up," Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson said. "Younger kids are getting involved in more and more dangerous things."

Currently, three school resource officers share the county's six middle schools, but Maj. Bob Buckman said that the caseload is too much for one officer to handle.

"I think the middle schools are average about 150 calls per year that the deputies are handling," he said. "Everything you see in the community, you see in the schools."

Buckman said that resource officers see more familial disputes than field officers do, including custody and visitation disputes as well as gang issues, drug incidence and fights.

"We are not doing disciplinary actions," Simpson said. "We step in and take over if there is a violation of law."

Supervisor Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac) said he believed in the importance of the school resource officers because of the stories he hears from his two children.

"I know for a fact that things have been headed off at the pass," he said. "This program is the right thing and the right time to keep our children safe when there were insidious things such as gangs infiltrating our schools."

Also included in the Sheriff's Office's enhancements are 5.35 additional employees for the criminal investigators unit and 8.56 full-time employees to staff the new substation in Sterling.

"These are the deputies that are going to keep that station running 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Simpson said. "It would not be accessible to the community."

SUPERVISORS LOOKED for other ways to keep costs of the Sheriff's Office down, including possibly cutting vacant positions in the department, but Simpson said the number of open positions has dropped. He told the board that there were 38 noncivilian positions open, 10 crossing guard positions and 10 communications positions.

"We have about 32 pending for [noncivilian] positions which hopefully we will be able to get into the academy," he said. "Since last July 1 through March 9 of this year we've hired 73 people."

Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) called into question the validity of the DARE program offered to county fifth-graders if the county is seeing such an increase in crime in middle schools, but Simpson said the program did help children at an early age.

"I shudder to think what would happen if we didn't have it," he said. "I think it would be worse."

Supervisors asked the Sheriff's Office about the status of the new jail, but were surprised to here that the building was not ready for occupancy when it was turned over to the county a few weeks ago.

"The occupancy permit just issued two weeks ago," Maj. Robert Mulligan, division commander of the corrections, said. "We found we were starting to have sewer problem in the building. We found the sewage was not even hooked up to the sewer line outside the building."

Supervisors asked Bowers to find out who was responsible for the project and find out the status of the project. Bowers said he would bring the information to the board's March 15 work session.

"I think the sheriff needs an answer," Tulloch said. "If it is a construction issue then I want it identified and fixed."

UNDER THE PROPOSED budget, the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management would receive 4.3 cents of the 97.5 cent tax rate, just under $42 million. If the budget was to be cut to a lower tax rate, however, fire and rescue's allocation would also be reduced.

Included in fire and rescue's requested enhancements are staffing for the proposed Lansdowne fire station, technicians for the tankers at the Middleburg and Hamilton fire stations, a quartermaster to assess the department's inventory and a planner specialist to help coordinate issues related to natural disasters and other large-scale emergency situations.

Supervisor Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin) questioned the necessity of the planner specialist, stating it might possible for those duties to be included in the duties of the department's special events planner.

"The special events coordinator deals with public safety at these events, traffic and working with the event promoter," Chief Joseph Pozzo said. "There is some reduced time in the colder month, however once you get full time and the weather breaks, it is difficult."

POZZO TOLD THE board that there are few openings, with the only vacancies on the firefighting side of the department, something he called "normal departures." The department also has four dispatch positions available and four call-taker positions open, but Pozzo said he has received 71 applications for the eight positions.

"We are very encouraged," he said. "We have been pretty aggressive this year."

With almost 27 full-time employees requested to staff the Lansdowne station, Supervisor Mick Station (R-Sugarland Run) questioned whether the station would need career firefighters in coming years or if volunteers would take over some of the duties at the station.

"There could be from the Ashburn volunteer [force]," Pozzo said. "I want to get it staffed out front so when the station opens we can properly staff that station for that community."

The Board of Supervisors will continue its budget work Thursday, March 15, at 6:30 p.m., where it will focus on Animal Care and Control, Parks and Recreation and the Health and Wellness departments.