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Posted: March 3, 2011 10:31 p.m.

County discusses public safety budget concerns

As Newton County commissioners prepare for next year's budget, they're hoping to hold public safety spending within its budget, but the sheriff says that's not always possible.

At their recent weekend retreat, commissioners looked for ways to build emergency reserve funds, but in addition to dwindling property tax revenues, they identified continued public safety budget deficits as a problem. Sheriff Ezell Brown said his office has to respond to emergencies and as crime and prisoner rates increase, so do his costs.

The jail accounts for 23 percent of the county's spending, while the other sheriff's office departments make up another 22 percent of the county's current $46.3 million budget. The sheriff's office exceeded its budget by $1.8 million in 2009 and by $870,000 last year.

Commissioner Mort Ewing said he didn't know how the board could create a budget if the sheriff's office didn't follow its budget.

Brown said the most difficult part of meeting his budget is the fact that his office has received around $2 million less than he requested each of the past two years. At the same time, calls for service increased by more than 3,000 in 2009 to 61,401.

"After we strategically prepare the figures, they are slashed by the county prior to implementation and without regard for our input. Each year we assess spending from the previous year and project the total cost for program operations, based on costs associated with operating a full-service, twenty-four hour law enforcement agency," Brown said Thursday. "Unfortunately, we have never been afforded the opportunity to operate with a realistic budget developed by individuals with law enforcement experience. Each year we have been forced to operate at a reduced amount."

County Attorney Tommy Craig said the board can't control how constitutional officers, such as the sheriff, clerk of courts and probate judge, spend their budgeted money, but they can ensure that those officers don't overspend.

Newton County's Auditor Wayne Tamplin said spending was difficult to track because the sheriff's office had not been following the proper purchasing procedure, turning in purchase orders after items had already been bought.

Chairman Kathy Morgan said she and Administrative Assistant John Middleton have met with Sheriff Brown three times in the past 45 days, and all parties agreed they were had addressed the issue.

Middleton said Saturday that the sheriff's office spending is on track this year, with the exception that jail spending is about $100,000 over budget to date.

The number of jail officers has decreased from 71 in 2008 to 56 this year, while the number of deputies has declined from 53 to 49 in the same time period. Brown said furlough days have not cut costs for the sheriff's department, because those cuts have forced the department to pay more overtime.

"We do not have a 9-5 operation; nor, are we able to close for holidays or inclement weather," Brown said. "I firmly believed that we work with the unknown. We cannot predict the breakdown of an expensive piece of equipment in the jail; the case of a missing child; a major auto accident or criminal activity requiring extensive manpower and overtime..."

He saved the sheriff's office is also responsible for funding school resource officers and handles some of its own electrical and plumbing repairs.

Brown said he doesn't believe the level of service provided by his force has decreased, because officers are handling about 20 percent more work than they did previously. While they can handle the increased work load temporarily, the continued strain will eventually be too much.

Attorney Craig said the county knew when it built the 600-bed jail that those costs would be difficult to control. He said he's seen a lot of conflicts between sheriff's offices and county boards and they don't end well. He suggested commissioners address concerns in private.

Commissioner Ewing said Brown is doing a good job and that he has no desire to fight with the sheriff.

"But when we sit at this table next year, don't tell me the sheriff is $896,000 over budget; that's all I'm asking," he said.

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