Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper presented his fiscal year 2013 budget to the Board of Supervisors finance committee on Thursday night. Although the sheriff told finance committee members Michael Hobert (Berryville) and John Staelin (Millwood) that his department has several big-ticket capital items on the horizon, Roper’s proposed budget defers over $400K of capital spending decisions and may provide some relief from the financial pressure facing the County as it deliberates on its FY13 budget.
Roper also warned that budget cutting efforts had reached a point where his department’s ability to respond to calls was being impacted.
During Thursday’s budget discussion Staelin and Hobert recognized Roper’s transparency on his office’s spending needs. In acknowledgment, both supervisors agreed that they would be open to hearing supplemental budget requests from Roper in the event unforeseen circumstances cause his actual departmental capital needs to deviate from his spending plan.
“We appreciate the way that you manage your budget and would entertain a supplemental request on a capital expenditure for an extraordinary expense” Hobert said.
Roper’s budget proposal included several requests that were preliminarily approved by the finance committee, including a $60K study to look at microwave and communication tower improvements, $83K for two fully equipped replacement police cruisers and $9K for weapons refurbishment.
Roper’s budget plan was also notable for the costs being deferred, including $84K in replacement costs for undercover vehicles, $25K in furniture costs associated with the department’s recent space refurbishment, $100K in savings from a previously approved mapping system software replacement and over $180K in E-911communications savings generated by negotiations with Verizon and government grant offsets.
However, Roper said that the County’s law enforcement staffing and law enforcement infrastructure still faces challenges. One budget cutting solution in particular, reduced overtime pay for patrol officers, prompted concerns from the sheriff that the budget cuts may have gone too far.
Although Roper said that he had not addressed overtime funding in his 2013 budget request, previously agreed upon overtime targets were proving difficult to meet given his current staffing levels.
“Part of my thought process on the overtime is that you can pay me now or pay me later,” Roper said. “We understand that the County is going to look at that whole benefits situation. I understand that that’s your position and we’ll wait to address this.”
“And I understand that your goal is to have a target and to try to reduce working overtime as best you can,” Hobert replied.
“Yes, we have already put that in place and it is an absolute struggle. It’s an absolute struggle,” Roper responded. “It has a direct effect on the number of people that we have out here – our ability to respond – it has an absolute effect on that. When we say that we have a minimum staffing standard – and we’re making these reductions – our ability to respond may be looked at.”
“We recognize that just as the ability to do things in the schools, or the building department, or whatever it is,” said Staelin “as David Weiss was saying the other day, people have to get used to slightly lower levels of service if they’re going to want to keep their taxes down.”
“While I certainly appreciate that and understand the position that you’re in – and I understand that having a few extra kids in a class, and I’m not being hard on education – but if I don’t have a deputy sheriff in the County and someone has a wolf beating on their door… Just hope that it never happens.”
Roper said that although his department has mutual aid agreements with the Town of Berryville and the Virginia State Police, from time to time the sheriff’s department office staffing drops below the department’s minimum staffing levels due to budget restrictions on overtime.
“I’m trying to ensure that we have a deputy sheriff available at all times” Roper said. “That’s my goal and that’s what prompted us to look at minimum staffing standards.”
Roper said that currently both he and the Department’s chief deputy are alerted when staffing levels drop below minimum levels so that they can be prepared to respond from home, if necessary.
“I’m sure that you know that we actually cut general government staff last year and there’ll be more cuts this year,” Hobert said. “Times are tight.”
“I appreciate that and I hope that you know that I manage our budget pretty well,” Roper responded. “But I’ll make the argument that perhaps public safety has been cut a little more than it needs to be. But I’m sure that general government and the other constitutional officers feel that they’ve been cut more than they need to be too. I recognize that position.”
Roper said that from the perspective of the Commonwealth of Virginia he currently has four more deputies than necessary due to the availability of outside funding sources. The positions include a school resource officer, a gang task force investigator and two traffic enforcement officers.
During the discussion, Sheriff’s Department staff also told the finance committee that poor radio communication coverage in the southern part of Clarke County sometimes results in law enforcement officers and fire fighters being unable to communicate with central dispatchers or other team members responding to an incident.
The staff members said that while they were not certain about the exact cost of the communication problem solution, $400K for a new radio tower and repeater equipment was discussed. The finance committee and Sheriff Roper agreed to fund $60K for a study to determine the best approach for solving the problem.