MOUNT VERNON — It took an intense meeting and some additional end-of-the-day wrangling, but the Knox County Commissioners and Sheriff David Barber finally hammered out an agreement on a budget reduction for the sheriff’s office. The agreement leaves the sheriff short of the amount requested in order to balance a shortfall in the county’s general fund, but gives the county a possible way to make up the additional funds. Though the agreement includes furlough days, it averted layoffs which would have weakened the sheriff’s office and left the county in the perilous shape other area counties have reached.
Nearly 25 people showed up for the budget showdown, including sheriff’s office employees, police union officials and concerned citizens. They witnessed a tense meeting that narrowed the county’s budget shortfall without closing the final gap.
All county departments receiving money from the county’s general fund (with two legal exceptions: The Board of Elections and Veterans Services) have been trying to cut 9 percent from their annual appropriations to make up for a revenue shortfall. However, since half the year has passed, the request amounts to an 18 percent cut for the remainder of the year. As the largest county department, the sheriff’s office has the largest budget, requiring the largest cut. Debate has intensified in the last two weeks about how far the cuts should go.
Barber said he met with representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police union to discuss furloughs. He said that the F.O.P. will support up to seven furlough days for union employees, a number which would be applied to non-union employees as well. Additionally, he said that all non-union employees will go from 40-hour work weeks to 32 hours. These measures will save a total of $78,000. Another $20,000 can be saved by changing the jail staff to 12-hour shifts. He also volunteered to throw in the jail’s $20,000 income from housing prisoners from elsewhere. This still leaves the sheriff’s office $80,000 short of the target given by the commissioners.
Barber pleaded with the commissioners to recognize his department’s efforts and make up the remaining money elsewhere.
“These people put their lives on the line,” Barber said.
Commissioner Allen Stockberger said that it is the board of commissioners’ responsibility to ensure that county government can continue to operate. Without the targeted reductions, the budget is too tight for smooth operations.
Barber said that cutting further would jeopardize his department’s functions. He asked for the commissioners to make a proposal either accepting what he has cut thus far, or offer an alternative.
“If you choose not to meet us with a proposal, you’re compromising the safety of the people of Knox County,” Barber said.
Stockberger responded that the commissioners were just trying to treat all departments equally.
“That’s the problem,” said Lt. David Shaffer of the sheriff’s office. “You’re holding a gun to our head and giving us one option.”
Shaffer asked the commissioners what the sheriff’s office should do that they haven’t already done, but Stockberger demurred, saying that it wasn’t the commissioners’ business to dictate how the cut be made.
Gambier resident Robert Small addressed the room, saying that he didn’t want to choose sides; he wanted to feel safe in his home, but also wanted local government to continue to operate responsibly. He said he was worried that on one side, small crimes could go uninvestigated, while on the other side, small crimes might not get prosecuted if those departments are cut. He asked if there were any way to reroute funds from such projects as the bridge restoration on Big Run Road.
Wise said that it wasn’t in their power to do that, as the bridge restoration was a project of the county engineer’s department, coming out of his budget, which is not subject to the general fund shortfall.
Fraternal Order of Police ???? Wayne Noggle asked the commissioners if they had the authority to do an emergency sales tax increase on behalf of emergency services. Stockberger said that he wasn’t sure and would ask the county’s legal counsel to advise them on this issue.
Beverly Snyder, an employee of the sheriff’s office who lives in Morrow County, had a tearful warning about the situation there, where the local sheriff’s department has been drastically scaled back due to budget problems.
“People are arming themselves in Morrow County,” Snyder said. “Is that what you want?”
When the meeting appeared about to end unresolved, Capt. Richard Brenneman asked if the commissioners could tell him when they would decide, because he had employees contemplating putting their vehicles and houses up for sale because of the possibility of further furloughs or layoffs. Barber added that the stress of the unresolved situation was destroying morale. The commissioners agreed to look over the numbers and come back with a counterproposal by the end of the day.
According to Stockberger, the final negotiated agreement, accepts the reductions Barber proposed Thursday, including the $20,000 from bed rentals. The agreement also gives the commissioners authority to attempt drumming up further bed rental business to help make up the additional $80,000 needed to cover the budget gap. No sheriff’s office employees will be laid off at this time.