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Posted: March 28, 2011 6:22 a.m.

Sheriff wants to figure out budget dilemma

Sheriff Ezell Brown has issued an open invitation to the Newton County Board of Commissioners, as they prepare for the 2012 fiscal year.

The chairman and two commissioners have had short tours of the sheriff's Alcovy Road facilities, but Brown believes a more in-depth accounting is needed if the sheriff and board are to get on the same page.

"We all need to invest the time to get a full understanding of the correctional and law enforcement sides," Brown said Wednesday. "I think people will see we're nickel and diming ourselves to death.

"We want to work with the commissioners...we recognize that the best sheriff's office is the one that can get along with its board of commissioners."

The sheriff's office is one of several county departments preparing budgets for next fiscal year, but law enforcement and jail operations accounted for 45 percent of all general fund expenditures in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010.

Combined the two departments were given around $18 million in the fiscal year 2010 budget. The sheriff's office went over budget by about $870,000 last year, raising concerns among county commissioners who are trying to prepare an accurate budget during difficult economic times.

The board will face another tough decision this budget cycle as revenues are expected to drop for the fourth straight year and the property tax digest could decline by more than 12 percent.

Brown said his department went over budget last year mainly because of increased overtime costs that resulted form the fact he was forced to increase furlough days and that calls for service and the jail population have increased while the budget has decreased.

In addition, Brown said his office can't always predict all costs. The current death penalty case of Cobey Wade Lakemper is costing the sheriff's office around $1,500 per day.

When a piece of equipment in the jail fails, Brown said he doesn't have the option to delay its replacement because of the legal mandates he has to follow. When a cooling tower went down in the jail a couple of years ago, it cost the office $200,000 to repair. If the fingerprint machine were to go down, it could cost $100,000 to repair.

Under better economic conditions, a department would keep a contingency fund to cover unexpected costs but that's one of the first things to go when revenues decline.

While Brown was criticized for also going over budget by $1.08 million in his first half-year as sheriff in 2009, he presented figures showing that nearly 58 percent of his budget for that fiscal year had already been spent before he took office. Overtime was the culprit, and Brown noted that was a situation he inherited.

The sheriff's office is on budget this year so far, Administrative Assistant John Middleton said previously.

However, Brown said his office will continue to struggle to stay under budget if the budgets are not realistic.

"There is no way I or anyone else can go into a field of unknown and qualify as an expert in a matter of hours. If (the board) eliminates us from the process of making a budget that's going to make it difficult," Brown said, noting that the budget he prepares annually has been slashed by the county in previous years.

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