GALLIPOLIS — Concerns over the safety of county residents in light of budget cutbacks and subsequent layoffs at the Gallia County Sheriff’s Office earlier this year was the main topic of the discussion on Thursday morning at a regular meeting of the Gallia County Board of Commissioners.
Several concerned citizens were present during the meeting held at the Gallia County Courthouse, including a victim of a recent break-in, to discuss the budgeting issue with the commission and to find out what can be done to improve the situation.
Gallia County Commission President Harold Montgomery reported on the beginning-of-the-year, 14-percent budget cut for all county departments, explaining that several funding sources, including the phasing out of tangible personal property taxes, directly impacted the amount of funding the county received in 2012.
“The state has balanced their budget in Columbus on the backs of local governments,” Montgomery said. “We don’t get the funds here that we did and, as a result, we had to cut budgets by 14 percent — 14 percent in every department.”
As a result of the cutbacks, the sheriff’s office reorganized and cut a total of 18 full- and part-time positions within the department, dissolving the detective division, while displacing seven staff members into other positions — directly impacting, among other things, the number of units assigned to road patrol.
Those residents present at the meeting were greatly concerned by this fact.
“Two deputies is just not enough to cover this area. Something needs to be done to where we can hire some more of our deputies back,” one of the citizens stated. “If you’ve got one deputy in Crown City and one up towards Meigs, what happens to the people in the middle when they need somebody?”
Montgomery stated that the sheriff’s office receives the largest portion of the county’s general fund budget — a total of 27 percent of the $7.5 million budget this year — and, due to this, felt a greater impact as a result of the cuts than some of the other county departments.
“The sheriff’s department still has a little over $3 million for his full operation of the jail and office and work release center, but we have no jurisdiction or control over how they manage their office, and they manage it the best that they see fit with the resources they have,” Montgomery stated. “We’re at the point right now, hoping we can get through the year without any additional cuts. I think that we are on track that we are going to make it through the year.”
Montgomery further stated that the 14-percent, across-the-board cuts were not arbitrary on the part of the commission.
“We are mandated by the state that we have to fund each department. We can’t not fund one department and fund another,” he said. “When we make cuts, the only fair way to do it, in my opinion, instead of saying we’re going to cut this one and not cut this one, and this one and this one, we just had to take a number of how much we were reducing the budget — 14 percent — so then that 14 percent went to each department, and it hurt each department.”
Additionally, Montgomery reported that, due to cuts at the federal level, the sheriff’s office was unable to obtain three federal grants that they had received in the past which resulted in the loss of approximately three positions. However, Montgomery stated that the sheriff’s office still employees approximately 30 employees who take on the large responsibility of running the department.
“I think the sheriff still has, in his full operation, 30-plus full-time employees; plus, I think there’s still some part-time employees. Their department is not down to just to three or four people running the whole thing, but they have a lot of responsibility, a lot of different directions they have to go. So, they are thin,” he said.
When asked for comment, Gallia County Sheriff Joe Browning reported that he expends as much of his resources as possible to fund the road patrol division, but is mandated to not only run the Gallia County Jail, but also to provide many other services including the processing of sheriff’s sales, the provision of court security and administrative duties, among others.
“We have mandates that require that we do concealed carry permits and conduct background checks for various organizations and agencies that rely on us to do that, so that requires the use of the clerical staff. There are clerical staff assigned to court duties, such as processing court paper work. Not all of our employees are enforcement and assigned to patrol, but we tried to put as much of the general fund revenue as possible into that aspect of our operation on patrol and follow-ups,” Browning said. “What really hurt us was losing those grants on top of that 14 percent cut. I think that the public knows exactly why we would have trouble staffing patrol positions because they know, basically, what we’ve had to try to do to make the budget meet what was given to us.”
Additionally, Browning reported that, according to the National Sheriff’s Association, a county the size of Gallia in a rural area, on average, receives 40 percent of the county’s general fund budget for its operation and, while this is not the case in Gallia, the sheriff stated that he is exploring every avenue for possible outside funding.
“Ultimately, we can only use what’s been given to us by our funding authorities. We’ve been exploring as many grant opportunities as we can. We have been reaching out to try to find other funding sources, such as increasing village contract hours, trying to work with township trustees to see if they would be willing to fund patrols in their communities — that’s always available to them,” Browning stated. “We will explore any funding option that’s available, and we’re very willing to help solve some of these problems if we are given a chance to do it.”
One county resident, who was among the community members at the meeting, reported on the desire of the county’s populace to not point fingers at county officials for the budget concerns, but to help find a solution and improve safety for residents of the county.
“We’re not coming here and trying to find anybody at fault, we’re coming here and trying to find out how we can help in the process of solving problems,” he said. “We’ve got problems. If the sheriff can only put one guy out at midnight in all this county, then we’ve got problems because there’s a lot of drugs, there’s a lot of thievery, and when that really gets [to be] common knowledge, they really have no fear of the sheriff’s department.”
County Commission Vice-president Joe Foster told those in attendance that the best way that they can help is to contact their federal representatives to express their concerns about the loss of grant and other types of funding for local law enforcement.
“You asked how you can help, I think one of the best thing you can do is contact our senators and representatives at the federal level,” Foster said.
Foster further reported on the effort the commissioners have made in contacting their elected officials and the need for the county residents to aid in that effort.
“I want you to understand that we have had those discussions, and we are doing what we can with them, but a letter from you would help. Even though you think you’re one vote, a letter or a phone call helps us,” Foster stated.
The residents further queried about the ease at which burglars are able to sell items, and, specifically jewelry, at reputable jewelry shops within Gallia County and what can be done to change that.
“We let businesses open up in town and get what they steal. Common sense will tell you, a drug addict doesn’t have $20,000 worth of jewelry and you give them $500 and they are happy for it. Where’s the common sense gone? And then we can’t do nothing because they’ve signed a paper saying this is not stolen. Well, they would have swore to anything to get that money,” a member of the public said.
Montgomery reiterated on the thoughts of his fellow commissioner and urged those present at the meeting to contact their elected officials.
“If they get enough pressure — your representatives: emails, phone calls, to your state senator, state representative, it will get their attention,” Montgomery said. “The more pressure they get, it’s what they respond to.”
Sheriff Browning also stated that he and his staff attempt to give each theft and burglary cases as much individual attention as possible — a task that is hard to do with reduced staff.
“Right now, to be honest, we are struggling keeping at least one deputy on shifts some nights, and it’s really not as safe as what we would like to have. We do rely on our highway patrol partners to back us up a lot, and the city and village police officers have been really helpful lately, but we’d like to get back to where we are taking a leadership role in law enforcement in the area, which is where we should be,” Browning said. “When funded in that manner, we are planning on staffing it as adequately as we can.”
Upon questioning, the commissioners further reported on the so-called “carryover” in the county’s general fund budget, or the funding that is “left over” at the end of the calendar year after all appropriations have been made.
According to the commission, it is the recommendation of the state auditors and the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) that, at a minimum, the remaining balance be no less than what is needed to fund the county’s operations for two months.
“The first part of year, your not receiving much revenue and by year end, you need operating fund, it’s recommended to have two months of carryover balance,” Montgomery said while reporting that the approximate amount needed to fund the county’s operation currently is $1.35 million.
Reportedly, projections are at approximately $500,000 for the general fund carryover in 2012.
“Right now, with all the numbers we have, we’ll probably have, on projected revenues that’s been certified by the budget commission, we will have a carry over of somewhere around $500,000-$550,000,” Montgomery said. “That could change if we get different numbers from the budget commission.”
Additionally, Montgomery reported that, while the carryover balance is a “recommendation” by GFOA, repercussions can occur in those counties where the county commission does not remain fiscally responsible.
“If we are negligent in carrying a carryover balance, the state will come forth and put you under fiscal watch and even take over the budgeting process of the county,” Montgomery said.
Reportedly, the approximate carryover balance for the general fund in 2011 was $99,000.