When I agreed to write these monthly features for Oconee Patch, I had hoped that their primary focus would always be to bring good news and positive stories to the citizens of Oconee County about their Sheriff's Office. Unfortunately, such will not be the case this month as the prevailing issue concerning the Sheriff's Office lately is a budget cut, or “budget amputation” as Sheriff Berry calls it, we are facing.
Several local media outlets have already run stories on the budget cuts. I don't want this piece to be a rehash of those articles. My intent is to hopefully explain to the public what the real world impact of these cuts will be; however, I do feel that I should spend a little time on explaining how the budget process works. The first thing that people should understand is that the Sheriff is a constitutional officer and not an employee of the county government or under the purview of the board of commissioners. What this means is that the Sheriff reports directly to the voters and not the commissioners, and the commissioners are obligated to fund the operations of the Sheriff as well as the other constitutional officers.
In the early spring of each year, we begin putting together our budget request to submit to the governing authority. For the 2012 fiscal year, we were asked to reduce our budget by five percent with the Sheriff agreeing to reduce our budget by $300,000. Some might ask how we can reduce our budget by this amount and not cut services. The answer is that we can't. The citizens of Oconee County will see reductions in the level of service traditionally provided by their Sheriff's Office.
On paper, we have eliminated the line items for overtime pay. Obviously, we cannot eliminate emergencies or even routine calls that result in deputies working beyond their normally scheduled shift. Without money in the budget to pay overtime, we are forced to have personnel time adjust this time by either coming in late or leaving early for one of their other shifts within the pay period. Furthermore, we typically use on-call deputies to conduct prisoner and mental health patient transports. These transports will now have to be conducted by deputies that would be patrolling and answering calls. The real world impact of this is fewer deputies actually patrolling to prevent crime as well as fewer deputies available to actually answer calls for service, and this will result in longer response times and the need to more actively prioritize calls. For the deputies, this means backup, if available, will be slower, and it means solitary deputies answering calls on their own that would usually have more than one deputy responding.
Another adjustment that we have made is in our investigative division. We have shifted the investigators from five shifts of eight hours to four shifts of 10 hours. We hope to realize savings in our fuel budget by doing this. The real world impact is that the reduction in the number of shifts worked by the investigators will lead to delays in cases being actively worked.
At this time, we do not anticipate furloughs, but if it comes to that, furloughs will start with me and then the captains. We hope that we would be able to keep from having to furlough any line level employees. If we lose any personnel, we may not be able to replace them thus causing the shifts to be even more understaffed.
We have no money in the budget for office supplies. The real world impact is that we will now have to charge fees for copies of reports and other items for which we have not charged in the past. We will have to do so in order to replenish paper supplies and keep toner in the printers.
Our training budget has been eliminated. This means that our personnel will not be able to attend training other than what we can offer in-house. We have numerous instructors within the Office that will be able to handle the general training topics, but we do not have instructors that can teach certain technical, forensic, and specialty topics. We take pride in our work and our abilities, but we all recognize the need for continued training and professional development. Any training that results in travel will have to be personally approved by the Sheriff, and only “train the trainer” and imperative technical courses will even be considered for approval.
Also eliminated is our uniform budget. We have no money to replace worn and damaged uniforms.
We are still working though the budget, and it will be an ongoing process with regular staff meetings to closely monitor expenditures. We will do our utmost to maintain the level of service that we currently provide, but the reality of the situation is that we will not be able to sustain this.
I close by saying that our personnel are dedicated, and I am very proud of the way they have responded to all of this. Obviously, they are not happy with it, and they know it will be tough going, but they haven't whined or complained. They faced the situation head-on and have promised to do their part to help get through this.