Funding cuts raise concerns for safety

By Monty Tayloe
Reprinted with permission by The Winchester Star

Winchester – A proposed cut in state funding to sheriff’s offices could mean job losses in the local area.

“Many sheriffs don’t have anything else in their budget to cut. Personnel is all they’ve got,” said John Jones, director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association.

But with the region feeling the effects of a national recession, it’s a bad time to lose deputies.

“When the economy’s bad, we usually have more work to do …. We’re already short; we need more people,” said city Sheriff Lenny Millholland.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2010, which takes effect July 1 and is under consideration by the General Assembly, calls for a 7 percent reduction in funding for sheriffs from the Virginia Compensation Board.

The board distributes state money to fund positions at commonwealth’s attorney’s offices, sheriff’s offices, and jails, proportionate to each locality’s need.

The 7 percent funding reduction represents $34.5 million in savings to the state for fiscal year 2010, out of more than $200 million in state funding for sheriff’s offices.

Local sheriffs say the drop in state funding translates into less law enforcement.

In Clarke County, the reduction represents $54,000 from the Sheriff’s Office’s $1.5 million annual budget.

“That’s just about one deputy sheriff,” Sheriff Anthony “Tony” Roper said Monday.

Millholland said he hasn’t calculated what the cuts would mean for the Winchester Sheriff’s Office, but he expects to lose at least one position if the reduction is passed by the General Assembly.

The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office received more than $2 million of its $9 million budget for the current fiscal year from the Compensation Board. With the cuts, it would lose about $140,000 in FY 2010 – funds that could account for several positions.

And it’s not just sheriff’s offices. The proposed cuts would also affect the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester, which would lose $390,000 from its $18 million annual budget.

Jail Superintendent Bruce R. Conover declined to speculate on the number of positions that could be eliminated if the state funding reduction is approved, but he did say that a starting corrections officer makes about $36,000 a year, not including benefits.

“They pay a considerable portion of officers’ salaries,” he said about the Compensation Board. “There’s no doubt we’ll have to reduce in some shape or form.”

Jones said the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association estimates that at least 310 deputy positions would be eliminated statewide if Kaine’s proposed cuts are approved.

Conover and the local sheriffs say eliminating positions in their departments would place a heavy burden on the remaining employees and diminish public safety in the Winchester area.

“This affects our response time, everything,” Roper said.

“If you’ve got 80 inmates in a housing unit, you have to put someone in there with them,” Conover said of the jail’s need for corrections officers.

The Clarke County Sheriff’s Office has an open slot for a deputy. “Right now, I’m afraid to fill it,” Roper said.

Kaine’s office said that in the context of the statewide across-the-board budget cuts, Virginia’s law-enforcement agencies are among many institutions that could feel the bite of the budget ax.

“The [proposed] cuts the governor made were difficult … there’s not any part of the state government that wasn’t hit because of the reduction in revenue,” spokesman Gordon Hickey said. “The budget is now in the hands of the General Assembly; they’ll decide the final cuts.”

It is possible that the cuts won’t translate into eliminated law-enforcement positions.

At the local jail and Winchester-area sheriff’s offices, the Compensation Board money covers most of the cost of a law-enforcement position. The localities provide moderate additional funding to keep pay competitive with nearby Loudoun and Fairfax counties.

If the state funding cuts are approved, officials of the local sheriff’s offices and jail could go to their localities to seek the lost funds.

However, in the current recession, local governments are just as strapped for cash as the state.

“I think we know what they’ll say,” Millholland said. “There’s no good answer for this.”  

– Contact Monty Tayloe at
[email protected]

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