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NCSO budget short $1.08M

COVINGTON - The Newton County Sheriff's Office is facing a shortfall of about $1.08 million in this year's budget, Sheriff Ezell Brown told county commissioners Tuesday night.

In order to complete operations for fiscal year 2009, ending June 30, the sheriff asked for $680,000 plus the $400,000 slashed from the budget earlier this year in an attempt to close the gap on a $5 million countywide shortfall.

Commissioners agreed to withdraw the $1.08 million from the county's fund balance. The reduction had already been accounted for in projections of the total fund balance that will be available at the end of the fiscal year, according to Administrative Assistant John Middleton.

Currently, the county has approximately $10 million in the fund, with the deduction for the sheriff's office and other expenses bringing that down to about $8 million, or 16.6 percent of the proposed fiscal year 2010 budget.

The county must maintain a fund balance of at least 15 percent in order to keep its credit rating.

Brown called the shortfall "a runaway train that was going to happen regardless if it was me, my predecessor or those who sought office with me," for the position of sheriff.

The main factor is overtime, he said, noting that when he took office Jan. 1, the Sheriff's Office had already used about 72 percent of budgeted overtime on the corrections side and about 94 percent on the law enforcement side. He blamed a lean budget for fiscal year 2009 and a lack of manpower.

Repairs to an air conditioning unit and other electronics also played a part, he said.

Brown said he has implemented 12-hour shifts in place of 8-hour shifts to help make up for the shortfall in manpower and has eliminated most overtime.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing asked whether seizures by a new traffic unit that has been manning Interstate 20 could help replenish the budget, but Brown said those funds must be earmarked for special purposes as outlined in state and federal law and cannot go toward maintenance and operations.

Brown said I-20 is being targeted by the unit because of the number of fatalities on the interstate.

"I don't want the board nor the community to get the impression that we're operating a dragnet on I-20. It's a traffic unit. Wherever there's a criminal element, that's what we're going to do," he said.

With commissioners grappling with a $4.8 million shortfall for the fiscal year 2010 budget, which begins July 1, Brown already knows he won't be getting funding for any capital expenditures or new personnel.

He had asked for 11 new detention officers to open a vacant pod at the detention center, citing overcrowding, and an additional 18 positions on the law enforcement side, including four deputy sheriffs, five investigators, two crime technicians, four administrative technicians, two bailiffs and an administrative technician to serve at the judicial center.

He won't get those new positions, and, at worst, could lose between 17 and 27 employees if the millage rate of 9.73 is maintained and county commissioners decide to cut employees on a pro rata basis, determined by how much of the budget is expended on each department. The Sheriff's Office accounts for about 43 percent of the budget.

An option floated at a budget work session Monday night would have the Sheriff's Office giving up just one employee, or $50,000, and would require an increased millage rate, but commissioners have yet to reach a consensus on any solution to the budget problem.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Office continues to suffer from short staffing and overcrowding at the jail.

Brown said an ankle monitoring system has been implemented for nonviolent offenders to help with the overcrowding. It costs about $45 per day to house an inmate with no medical complaints versus $6 per day to track one wearing the ankle monitor, he said, but noted that solution is only temporary.

The Sheriff's Office is in a Catch 22 situation: They need more officers to help with overcrowding, which isn't feasible. If officers work additional hours, that generates more overtime and contributes to the budget shortfall, he said.

In a letter dated May 18, Brown assured his staff, "I am on the front line fighting to ensure that no employee of this department is displaced as a result of board decisions."

Despite the problems they're facing, Brown said his employees are focused on their duties.

"All the employees here are trying to stay upbeat and continue to stay positive. We've got a great staff here and we're looking to continue to perform the great services we have at this time," he said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.