Sheriff’s department budget grows in Belmont County

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The Belmont County Sheriff’s Department will have $600,000 more to work with in 2018, but all other county departments’ budgets will be reduced by 5 percent.

The Belmont County Board of Commissioners approved a $22,360,009 general fund budget for 2018 during its regular meeting Wednesday. The commissioners said an across-the-board funding cut of 5 percent would affect all departments expect the sheriff’s department, which was granted an increase due to what they described as a “pressing need of public safety.” The 2018 budget includes $5.2 million for the sheriff’s department compared to last year’s $4.6 million. The total 2017 budget was $22,360,207 — $189 more than the 2018 budget.

Commissioner Mark Thomas said the department heads will decide how to allocate their funding.

“We gave the elected officials and department heads a sum of money minus 5 percent and left it to them where they would budget,” Thomas said. “How each elected official or department head works with that is up to he or she.”

“We don’t anticipate this level of a cut is going to reduce services,” Commissioner Josh Meyer added. “It will not. There’s not going to be any layoffs. … We’re giving them their money, they’ll allocate it where they most need it.”

“We discussed the budget throughout 2017 in terms of what we were seeing from an economic standpoint because of the revenues coming in, what was happening in Columbus in terms of funds coming in from the state,” Commissioner J.P. Dutton said, adding that sales tax proceeds have not changed greatly. “On our retail side, 2017 obviously saw some changes at the Ohio Valley Mall … in terms of the nationwide issue of stores closing.

“We ended up looking at 2018 with similar revenues coming in,” he continued. “We had to keep some perspective on that. We’re still as a county, in terms of revenues, at a higher level than we were three, four or five years ago. The last couple of years, the last two budgets, we sort of slowed the growth.”

“I feel very optimistic for 2018, and it’s not just a blind optimism. I think there are reasons to be optimistic about 2018. I think it needs to be kept in mind that these budget numbers be kept in perspective in terms of where we were four or five years ago,” Meyer said, adding that the budget was about $17,500,000 around that time.

Dutton said the commissioners took revenues and increasing needs into account when evaluating the demands of the county departments.

“The one that obviously stood out was the sheriff’s department,” Dutton said. “That was another topic we discussed throughout the year. With the housing of prisoners in Jefferson County due to the overcrowding of the jail, this has led to some budgetary needs for the sheriff as well as some other items related to what he’s dealing with on a day-to-day basis.”

Since July of last year, the county has housed about 30 inmates a day at the Jefferson County Jail.

“There was a sizable need there in 2018. We wanted to do our best to meet some of those needs, even though all of them could not be met,” Dutton said. “We wanted to see what was most crucial and what we could do. But in order to do that we needed to find the funds. … Every department in the county under this budget is taking a 5-percent reduction, including ourselves. This 5-percent reduction helps us to address some of those needs of the sheriff’s department.”

Dutton added that the other departments will still provide the same level of services in 2018 as they did in 2017.

Thomas pointed out that the sheriff’s budget equals 20 percent to 25 percent of the county’s entire budget. Thomas added that the county will focus on ways to run the jail with greater efficiency before considering construction of a new building, which would carry hefty initial costs as well as recurring costs such as labor, utilities, food, health care and other expenses.

“The commissioners have the issue of weighing public safety vs. the taxpayers’ budget,” Thomas said. “The last thing we look at is building a new facility and the first thing we look at is what we’ve been doing over the last couple of years. Working with the judges and the sheriff and the prosecutor as to a better way to keep track of who’s in the jail, how long they’re in the jail.

“Obviously we’re not telling the judges how to run their courts,” he added. “We’re not telling the sheriff how to run the jail. Prosecuting defendants for crimes is going to happen regardless of what the county commissioners’ budget is. All we’re asking is that everybody work together. While we’re in charge of the money, we’re not in charge of the judges. We’re not in charge of the sheriff. All we do is make the budget.”

He commented on the demands on the sheriff’s office.

“It’s a crisis. It’s a fiscal crisis for us, but public safety comes first, and we have to address it, and our residents will have to bear the cost regardless of what happens,” Thomas said, adding that the commissioners appreciate the cooperation of the county’s department heads.

“Everyone in this county can run more efficiently,” Thomas said. “We are the fiscal stewards of the county money, and that’s a very challenging position, because while we are the stewards of the money, we are not the bosses of other elected officials in this county.”

The commissioners commended their staff and county Auditor Roger Conroy for their assistance in working out the budget. The past year brought the retirement of the commissioners’ fiscal officer, Barb Blake, and of longtime county auditor Andy Sutak, who has since been replaced by Conroy.

Port Authority Director Larry Merry said his office will deal with the cut by raising some of the funds it needs through other means.

“We’re always thankful for that support, and we work closely with the commissioners throughout the year,” he said, adding that the majority of funding provided by the commissioners goes toward running the port authority office. “We have other ways of generating some of our funding, so we don’t have the expectation that they provide every dollar we need. We do that through different projects.”

Conroy said his office likely will make cuts in the area of supplies.

Belmont County Engineer Terry Lively said the majority of his department is funded through the gasoline tax and license plate fees.

Belmont County Sheriff David Lucas could not be reached for comment.