MOUNT VERNON — County budget hearings for the 2010 budget began Thursday afternoon with an appeal to calm by County Commissioner Allen Stockberger.
“Before we even get started [with these hearings], there are people out there crying wolf,” Stockberger said, “when we don’t even know if there is a wolf there yet.”
The commissioners and officials from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office huddled together to begin exploring the sheriff’s budget in unprecedented detail, and made what was described as encouraging progress in uncovering creative solutions to counter potential funding problems. Knox County Sheriff David Barber, joined by Lt. David Shaffer and administrative assistant Jan Wasiluk, represented the sheriff’s office in the preliminary review process. No final decisions will be made until closer to the end of the year.
A few contentious items were quickly cleared out of the way, starting with the recent radio advertisement which had urged county residents to call the commissioners and express support for an emergency increase in the county sales tax.
Shaffer was quick to distance the sheriff’s office from the ad. He explained that the ad was run by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, a group which is politically separate from both the Fraternal Order of Police union and the sheriff’s office. Commissioner Robert Wise said that things had come up pretty even in terms of calls, with their offices receiving four calls in favor of implementing the sales tax increase, and three calls objecting.
The commissioners also brought up a Knox Pages posting discussed on the radio which claimed that a 20 percent budget cut would result in 25 percent of all sheriff’s office employees being laid off, including all detectives, allegedly even including the detective for investigating sex crimes against children.
Stockberger said that the equation was faulty and misinformed, especially at such a preliminary stage when many factors have yet to be discussed. He added that the poster of the comment claimed to be connected to the sheriff’s office.
Barber said that he was not familiar with that post or any comments on Knox Pages.
“I don’t read that trash,” Barber said. He added that employees in his office are prohibited from posting online comments during working hours. He said that if anyone made comments, it was on that person’s own time.
Getting down to business on funding concepts, Stockberger said that the commissioners had asked for and received a legal opinion from Assistant County Prosecutor Charles McConville stating that it would be legally possible to use proceeds from the Concealed Handgun Fund to help support the pay of one or more police officers. The fund comes from fees charged for handgun licenses. Commissioners’ clerk Rochelle Shackle said that the fund typically brings in $15,000 to $20,000 per year, and currently stands at $55,000. In the past it has been used to pay for software updates, maintenance agreements and other administrative costs, but the commissioners said that it could offer some help if they redeploy those funds to help support employee wages.
Stockberger said that the commissioners’ attempts to help obtain additional bed rentals at the jail has not met with much success, though they did extend an offer to make a sales call to the Fairfield County commissioners to encourage them to keep sending inmates to Knox County for housing. Barber said that his people had an upcoming meeting with the U. S. Marshal’s Services about housing federal prisoners.
The commissioners asked that if it turns out later in discussion that employees had to be trimmed, would it be possible to cut jail staff instead of road patrolmen? Barber responded that the jail is already near the mandated minimal-staffing level, with five staff posts covering the entire 100-bed facility. He said that union regulations require layoffs to proceed according to seniority, which means that jail staffers would be cut first, but the legal mandate for minimal staffing would mean that a patrolman would have to be removed from patrol and placed on duty in the jail to replace each laid-off worker.
Stockberger asked if any of the management staff could be converted to salary. Barber said that union regulations would not allow for that.
The commissioners then brought up the often-discussed issue of deputies driving their patrol cars home, commenting that many constituents remain opposed to it.
Lt. Shaffer defended the practice, pointing out that it allows for quicker response time and better maintenance of the county’s fleet of patrol cars. Barber added that the small amount of fuel it takes for deputies to drive the vehicles home is negligible compared to the amount of money the county saves in overtime by having deputies tend to smaller calls on their way to and from work instead of driving into the office just to change cars.
The officials and staffers then went through the budget of the jail and the sheriff’s office line by line, discussing how much each line could be cut back, and how additional savings could be generated. It was noted that some aging computer equipment might be replaced with Data Board funds, which go to support county expenses. Though Data Board funding remains in the cash-strapped general fund, it would at least offer some relief to the sheriff by covering a small corner of his budget.
Stockberger said that it might also be possible to replace some equipment with the 911 fund.
“Is there any way that 911 can contribute?” Barber asked, citing the county’s 911 call center and offices location in the jail complex.
“That’s a legitimate point,” Commissioner Teresa Bemiller said. The commissioners said they would explore with 911 the possibility of charging them for space to help assist the sheriff’s office with expenses.
By the end of the meeting, the preliminary picture which was beginning to emerge is that with the use of alternate funding, stringent expense and equipment cutbacks, attrition and furlough days, the officials were able to reach a tentative figure within $150,000 of the original target.
Stockberger said that this figure was very encouraging.
“Thus far in the process, we have not even discussed [implementing] any layoffs,” Stockberger said.
The next hearing for the sheriff’s budget will take place on Nov. 5.