Sheriffs: Don’t cut deputies’ funding

By Chelyen Davis 

Stafford County would lose 14 deputy sheriffs under budget cuts proposed by Gov. Tim Kaine.

So Stafford County Sheriff Charles Jett joined several other county sheriffs in Richmond yesterday to beg state lawmakers–who will rewrite Kaine’s budget over the next week weeks–to reject those budget cuts to sheriff’s departments.

“Law enforcement is a core service that cannot be compromised, despite the economic times we are in,” Jett said.

The sheriffs say fewer deputies mean less public safety for citizens. In most counties–only nine counties also have a separate police force–sheriff’s departments do all police work, from investigations to 911 calls to handling jails and courthouses.

They’re already short-staffed, the sheriffs said.

To close a $3 billion budget shortfall for the current two-year budget, Kaine last month proposed cuts to almost all state services and agencies.

For sheriffs’ departments, that means a 7 percent cut, $34.5 million. The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association estimates that will mean the loss of 310 deputy jobs.

The sheriffs at yesterday’s press conference said they have little choice but to cut deputies to cover the budget losses. They said state funding for other things–like patrol cars, supplies, etc.–has vanished over the years, and that the state funding they do receive doesn’t cover the actual cost of operating most sheriff’s departments.

For example, Jett said the state formula allots just $25,000 a year as a starting salary for a deputy. That’s not a competitive salary in Stafford, he said, and so he must pay more out of his local funding.

Stafford County isn’t as bad off as some localities. Jett said while most of his deputies are state-funded, overall just 20 percent of his department’s budget is from the state.

For some sheriff’s departments, it’s more like 60 to 70 percent.

For Spotsylvania County Sheriff Howard Smith, the state cuts could mean the loss of eight road deputies.

The governor’s recommended 7 percent cut would come to about $249,000 for Smith’s office.

But, the sheriff said yesterday, he’s hopeful the state will recognize the importance of funding public safety and won’t cut the funds. He added that he’s already spoken with some members of the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors and if the state does cut funding, he’ll be asking the county to make up the different.

Smith said if the eight positions are eventually terminated, they will all be road deputies because state funding goes directly to salaries for those positions and not to other programs within the office such as the narcotics division or gang task force.

But, Smith said, he’s still optimistic the state will “do the right thing.”

“I can’t hardly keep up now with the calls that come in,” he said. “To do anything further would be devastating.” 

The sheriffs said that crime always goes up during a bad economy. And this recession is coming with other demands–like increased evictions, which are done by sheriff’s deputies.

Jett said his office did nearly 600 evictions in 2008–up from around 300 the year before.

Stafford also saw a double-digit increase in property crimes last year.

“I’ve personally seen the bad economic times and the effects it has on law enforcement,” Jett said.

He said Stafford has long suffered problems like gangs and drugs coming down from Northern Virginia. The cuts will mean he has to pull back on proactive efforts to combat such crimes, to focus on core services like answering emergency calls.

The sheriff’s departments are also facing cuts to their funding from localities. Jett said Stafford is still working on its budget, but he may have to make more budget cuts.
Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, and Sen. Ken Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, came to the sheriffs’ press conference to express their support.

“This is a very serious situation. We just can’t afford to take additional cuts,” said Stolle, himself a former police officer.

Stolle is also a member of the Senate’s budget-writing committee, and thus in a position to cut the budget elsewhere to avoid cuts to sheriff’s departments.

That elsewhere may be corrections system.

“We have to think outside the box a little bit,” Stolle said. “We have to re-examine how we do corrections.”

Stolle said there may be ways to avoid incarcerating nonviolent offenders who have a low chance of recidivism. Those offenders could be put in home-monitoring programs or other programs that keep them out of the prisons, thus saving the money it would cost to house them.

“One of the things we have to consider is if we’re mad at the individual, or we’re afraid of the individual,” Stolle said. “There’s a lot of ways to punish people.”

Kaine said he’s open to alternative ways to cut costs from the budget.

“If they have ideas about other cuts that could be made, I’m open to that,” Kaine said yesterday.

He said he talked to sheriffs about his cuts as he was in the process of writing his budget.

“Everybody had to sacrifice this year,” he said.

Chelyen Davis: 804/782-9362
Email: [email protected]
Reprinted with permission by The Free Lance-Star

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