Sheriff worried because of budget shortfall, reduced services

Published 5:16 pm Monday, May 13, 2013

By AMY JONES / Associate Editor

COLUMBIANA — Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry reiterated concerns about the sheriff’s office’s ability to serve citizens effectively due to lower budgets during a budget review May 13.

According to a presentation, the sheriff’s office is facing a budget shortfall of about $378,000 from salaries and other costs.

The sheriff’s office budget for fiscal year 2013, which comes in at about $19.5 million, is down more than $2 million from the budget high point in 2009, when the sheriff’s office had $21.7 million in funds.

Capt. Ken Burchfield, who prepares the budget for the sheriff’s office, said that while the budget numbers have dropped, costs such as salary obligations have risen — which provides little discretionary spending in the event of an emergency situation.

Burchfield said currently, salary obligations make up almost 88 percent of the sheriff’s budget, and discretionary monies are now less than 1 percent of the budget.

Commissioner Lindsey Allison said the drop in discretionary monies is at least partly due to the sheriff’s decisions.

“I agree that there’s less discretionary money, but the sheriff made some decisions as far as salary and staffing (that reduced discretionary money),” Allison said.

The sheriff’s office has almost $500,000 in money intended to pay for overtime, but that money is now being used as a cushion to cover unbudgeted expenses.

“If something happens and we have to spend that overtime money, you can rest assured the sheriff’s office is going to go over budget,” Burchfield said. “We’ve changed the way we do business because we can’t spend our overtime. It’s affecting our service.”

Burchfield detailed some of the services currently on hold because of budget constraints, including: a sex offender unit that would have the primary responsibility of monitoring, tracking and ensuring compliance from registered sex offenders; a community relations unit that would coordinate neighborhood watch programs, deliver safety programs to senior citizen groups and liaison with groups such as SafeHouse; and a traffic unit that would have the primary responsibility of investigating traffic complaints, dedicate time to neighborhoods with traffic issues and investigate serious accidents.

“I don’t have to tell you what a hot topic sex offenders are because of the heinous nature of some of the crimes they commit,” Burchfield said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Curry said the budget for the sheriff’s office should be based on needs instead of on history.

“Our needs have dramatically changed,” he said.

He said nationally, the average ratio of officers to citizens is 2.3 officers per 1,000 citizens. In Shelby County, the ratio of officers to citizens is 1.3 or 1.4 officers per 1,000 citizens.

“We’re not just saying we want what we want because we want it,” Curry said. “We’re required by law to carry out a lot of these services.”

Only three county commissioners were present for the budget review. Allison said commissioners were absent because of their jobs and because Curry didn’t notify them about the planned review until May 10.