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Sheriff seeks big budget increases
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Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown is seeking nearly $4 million in additional money for next fiscal year’s budget, but with property tax revenue again expected to decline, it’s unclear how much — if any — money will be available.

The sheriff is requesting a variety of new employees, vehicles, equipment, supplies and building renovations, items he said he needs to run his department correctly after years of rising calls for service, with a stagnant level of funding.

However, to cover the sheriff’s increased costs alone, the county’s millage rate (also called the property tax rate) would have to be raised from 10.91 to 13.04. For a house valued at $100,000, that would represent an increase in county taxes of $85.20.

The Board of Commissioners is unlikely to support such a large increase, considering the millage rate has only been raised once since the economic downturn in 2010.

When Commissioner John Douglas was told at Monday’s work session it would take raising the millage rate to 14.04 to fund all $5.47 million in requested expenses across the county, he said voters should “run us all out of town.”

Brown’s funding request is so large because the sheriff’s office budget accounted for 41.56 percent of last year’s county budget at $18.66 million.

If all of his requests were approved, the sheriff’s budget would jump to $22.55 million, which would cover the law enforcement side, the jail and the school resource officers stationed as security in schools.

The sheriff’s office has often gone over budget in past years, though the amount over budget has declined steadily.

Brown has said previously that the sheriff’s office can only operate in so lean a manner, particularly on the jail side where unexpected costs, including expensive prisoners (with intensive medical issues) and the building’s HVAC system failing, can and have occurred.

Overtime also has been an issue since the sheriff’s department lost more than 20 employees in the cuts during 2010.

When asked what he would do if he had to operate with the same budget as last year, Brown said Thursday he would do his best.

“They say you can’t take a turnip and squeeze blood out of it, but we would take (the budget) and would do the best we could. We would spend the money wisely until the money runs out,” Brown said. “We’re all here to work together. The board knows the importance of public safety and public service.

“Especially with the economy ready to turn around, with Baxter International and other industries looking to come to Newton County, we can’t afford to have our services continue to decline. But we’re doing a great job with what we have.”

Law enforcement requests
Brown presented his requested budget to the Board of Commissioners April 22, describing many of the increases.
He said his office had more than 66,000 calls for service in the 2012 calendar year and is on pace to exceed 70,000 in 2013.

Brown asked for seven new employees on the law enforcement side, including three full-time employees for the Newton County Judicial Center, four full-time deputies for the road and one part-time trainer.

He also wanted to make some promotions, which come with salary increases. The total cost of new employees would be $404,792.

He said the sheriff’s office is put in a “precarious and embarrassing” situation when it gets overwhelmed by calls, because it must prioritize, and citizens may have to wait an hour or two for lower-priority calls such as a burglary where the burglar is long gone.

He also asked for $120,000 more in overtime, for $238,800 total, saying employees in the criminal investigations division have mandatory training and although they try to use a comp-time system instead of overtime, there’s a limit when comp time builds up too much.

He’s also seeking $559,000 in new vehicles, including a transport van for inmates for court, 11 new patrol cars, two new vehicles for officers in the substance abuse and bullying education-based C.H.A.M.P.S. program, and two new vehicles for officers in the criminal investigation division.

Brown told the board the transport vans haul inmates from the around the state, and most have more than 150,000 miles on them.

If one of the vans were to fail, it could create a dangerous situation, he said.

He also requested $119,750 to replace out-of-service stun guns, buy a new X-ray machine and associated hardware for the judicial center and purchase new portable radios for road deputies.

There was also a $73,000 increased request for ammunition.

Brown said it was necessary for deputies to go to the range at least twice a year to maintain their shooting certification and said ammunition is also needed for SWAT training.

In addition, he said, ammunition is hard to find on the market, noting that stores can barely keep .22 rounds on the shelves. He wants to ensure the deputies have a full supply.

The total law enforcement request increased by $1.95 million to $10.8 million.

Jail requests
The sheriff requested $478,844 to add 10 detention officers to the jail staff.

He said Thursday that employees on the jail side are getting strained because there aren’t enough employees to cover all the shifts, requiring officers to work dozens of days in a row, causing them to be fatigued and adding stress to their personal lives.

Brown said it makes more sense to hire more employees than to continue to rack up overtime under sub-optimal conditions.

However, Brown is also asking for $400,000 more in overtime. It’s unclear if both the overtime and additional officers would be needed, but they were both included in the original budget request.

Another request was $113,000 for replacement of inmate mattresses; Brown told the board the current mattresses are worn out.

He’s also asking for $248,000 for jail renovations, including repairs to the kitchen ceiling, replacing carpet in the administration area of the jail, fireproofing cells, repairing and resurfacing inmate showers, repainting cells, and replacing a chilling tower in the jail’s air-conditioning system.

Other requests include $145,000 for two transport vans to transport prisoners and $186,000 to put new equipment in vehicles, replace equipment in the kitchen, purchase computer hardware and software and get a new card reader system for the jail.

Brown is also asking for $30,000 for video cameras in housing units, stun gun equipment and other equipment.
The total jail budget would increase by $1.96 million to $11.05 million.