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Sheriff’s budget climbing in Belmont County

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The Belmont County Board of Commissioners is holding budget hearings to determine departmental needs for 2022, and the sheriff’s office is seeking an additional $800,000 as law enforcement expenses rise.

Sheriff David Lucas and his fiscal officer, Kitty Paboucek, said the office is asking for $6.9 million compared to last year’s $6.1 million.

“It’s an increase over last year because of contractual wages and the cost of food, gasoline, medical,” Paboucek said. “And our overcrowded jail and the people that it takes to take care of all that, and overtime.”

Lucas said crime and the jail population declined during 2020 lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, but those numbers are now going up.

“Because of the pandemic last year, things really dropped in different areas, but that’s changing,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, jail overcrowding had been a pressing problem. Paboucek said the jail is built to house 144 inmates. Lucas said the average daily inmate population pre-pandemic was more than 180 and is currently approaching 160.

In addition, the jail was built to house 24 female inmates and now regularly houses 40-50, which has led to converting two male dormitories to female housing, giving the jail the capacity to hold fewer male inmates. Moreover, accused sex offenders cannot be housed with the general populace. Inmates with mental health issues also have special needs.

“We don’t know what (the inmates’) medical needs will be, but we have to cover whatever they are,” Paboucek said, adding medical expenses this year had increased $9,800 over last year.

The county has borne the added expense of housing excess inmates outside of the county, chiefly in the Jefferson and Monroe county jails, for $65 per inmate per day. Lucas did not know the exact number of inmates now being housed outside the county.

He said the building is also about 26 years old and beginning to have issues.

Paboucek added that the department is also responsible for prisoner transportation, with those costs increasing.

“The courts are ordering us to transport prisoners and we pay an agency, Prisoner Transport of America. Last year we spent $8,200. This year we spent $24,000,” she said. “We’re transporting people from Tennessee for $1,600.”

“Our hands are tied. There’s a warrant,” Lucas said. “If the courts want them, get them. … If it’s a reasonable day drive, we’ll go get them.”

Another expense is $214,000 for the purchase of four n ew road-ready cruisers to replace older vehicles.

“Some of them have over 150,000 miles,” Paboucek said of the retiring vehicles. “Gasoline is up almost $10,000 over what it was last year.”

Lucas and Paboucek also pointed out the department’s efforts to seek grant funding, reimbursements and to decrease costs when possible.

“I realize it’s a big jump when you look at the bottom line, but please look at all the things we’re doing to try and supplement,” Paboucek said.

Paboucek also applied for a state grant for jail expansion, but she is not optimistic.

“The state was only allotted so much money, and other counties are in far worse need than we are,” she said. “We are assuming other counties get that money before we do.”

The commissioners agreed that a new or expanded jail facility will be needed as the prisoner count increases.

Belmont County Commissioner Jerry Echemann said he expects the county budget next year to be similar to the $22 million of recent years.

“It’s kind of hard when you don’t know exactly what you’ve got to dole out, but we’re optimistic it will all go smoothly,” he said.

In prior years, it was necessary to take a percentage of funds from other departments to meet the sheriff’s office’s needs. Echemann said this may be the case again going into 2022.

“We always have to do a little shuffling around between departments. Some are in better shape than others,” he said. “That’s to be expected. Prisoner counts are going up. Price of gas for cruisers is going up. Cost of repairing cruisers is going up.”

There are more than a dozen department head budget hearings remaining before the 2022 budget is announced.

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