County Scales Back Budget On New School Resource Officers

SNOW HILL — At the request of the Worcester County Commissioners, the Sheriff’s Department was able to slash its original $1.7 million school safety plan to just over $600,000, but some on the commission still believe there’s some room to lower the figure even further.

The original proposal called for full-time armed deputies with vehicles to be placed at every public school facility. After feedback from the commissioners, Chief Deputy Dale Smack explained that his office made significant cost reductions.

“As [Sheriff Reggie Mason] said, we spent countless hours cutting the original proposal for the school security deputies from $1.7 million to about $604,000,” said Smack. “Now in the savings we cut vehicles, which was $355,000, vehicle equipment for the 13 vehicles for $301,000, uniforms and other equipment another $37,000. With salary savings and so forth a reduction of $817,057.”

The commissioners showed unanimous approval for the reductions, but several felt the $604,000 figure could be dropped further.

“We need to get it lower than the amount that was presented to us,” said Commissioner Jim Bunting.

Though he is willing to support 13 part-time deputies that would only work during the school year like Smack outlined, Bunting questioned the benefits those deputies should receive.

“[Sheriff Mason] had 25 percent for benefits but it was always my understanding that these jobs, other than the required benefits such as Social Security and workman’s comp, it would be a job without benefits,” said Bunting.

There might be other avenues for efficiency, he added, including reducing the 13 deputies to 11. While there are 14 public schools in the county, two of those schools share a building, leading the Sheriff’s Department to believe that one deputy could serve both schools. Bunting went a little further, pointing out that in both Snow Hill and Pocomoke there are separate schools that are built across the street from each other and might be served by splitting a single officer between them.

“I’d also like them to consider in Snow Hill you have the elementary school and the middle school right across the street from each other. I would like them to consider just one deputy for that site instead of two,” he said later. “It’s kind of ridiculous to have two deputies, one sitting in the one school and one sitting in the other school which is on one side of the road from the other and the same thing at Pocomoke.”

Before the budget is passed, Bunting explained that he would like to see the cost drop below $500,000 for the initial year and around $450,000 per year afterwards. One other option, he added, might be to implement some of the safety improvements like entry systems and additional cameras suggested by the Board of Education before taking the leap and placing officers in every school. However, Bunting agreed that he sees a need for armed security in schools and won’t oppose adding deputies should the cost be reasonable.

“I’m not going to oppose putting security in schools; I think it’s something everybody is going to go to eventually,” he said. “But I still believe it’s a feel good measure. If somebody wants to do something, they’re still going to do it.”

There was also discussion over the equipment the part-time deputies will need. The $604,000 plan calls for all officers to have breathalyzers in schools.

“You have kids coming into school and drinking,” explained Mason.

Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw didn’t dispute that fact but wondered if it might be cheaper just to have deputies in school call for backup and a breathalyzer than to equip so many part-timers with the devices. According to Lt. Ed Schreier, however, the Sheriff’s office supply of such devices is “pretty much obsolete” and should be replaced. Mason promised that his department would further examine the equipment and benefits situation.

The most important thing right now, he added, is getting the ball rolling on finding officers if the county hopes to have deputies in schools by September.

“Our biggest concern is recruiting … if we expect to have this in place by September we’ll need to know way before a July budget if there’s somewhere we can start,” Mason said.

Surrounding counties also have their eye on armed school security, he explained, which will result in the draw for additional personnel to be more competitive.

“They’re all discussing it so we’ll have competition,” Mason told the commission.

While Bunting is hoping for a sub-$500,000 cost, Lockfaw said that he doesn’t have a particular number in mind but is attentive of the county’s bottom line, especially with the school board’s safety requests to consider.

“We don’t have any specific numbers yet, one reason being we know the Board of Education is going to come back to us with some other security measures and there’ll be a price tag on that,” he said.

Between armed security, additional surveillance and entry control, Commissioner Judy Boggs asserted that the county is on a tightrope trying to balance costs with providing total safety in schools. Whatever the commission approves, however, she felt that it will be a multi-year program to phase everything into place.

“I don’t think it’s doable in one year,” she said.

That doesn’t mean that schools won’t see some immediate safety improvements, though, added Boggs.

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