SNOW HILL – The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office is seeking additional funding to hire more officers in the coming fiscal year.
During a budget work session Tuesday, law enforcement officials told the Worcester County Commissioners they were seeking funding to hire three new officers as well as another part-time officer to help with coverage in local schools. While the commissioners questioned the fact that overtime costs were projected to increase even with the addition of deputies, staff from the Sheriff’s Office defended the budget request. Col. Doug Dods said much of the overtime related to time spent in court.
“Our court overtime has been growing because our people are active and they’re making arrests like they should be,” Dods said.
Dods presented the Sheriff’s Office budget request of $8.3 million Tuesday. The proposed budget is 12 percent higher than the current year’s budget. Dods said the main increases in expenditures related to personnel and overtime.
He said the agency wanted to hire three new deputies because of pending retirements.
“Over the next few years, we’re going to have five members of the agency retire,” he said, adding that new officers spent a year training before they began patrolling. “You’re roughly on a year before I can even look at cutting them loose for patrol purposes. Really if you think about it they need some time on the road. We’re looking at almost two years before they’re effective.”
He said if the officers were hired now they’re be ready for regular duty by the time other officers retired.
“What we’re trying to do is stay ahead of the curve and use this as a training rotation so that as one retires we’ll have one in the pipeline to immediately take care of the domino effect,” Dods said.
He said the agency also needed another part-time officer to serve Stephen Decatur High School. Though each of the county’s schools is assigned a deputy, because Stephen Decatur is so large its officer could use help, according to Dods.
“That one person’s constantly busy,” he said.
Dods said another issue that had been taken into account in development of the proposed budget was the fact that a new sheriff would be taking over at the end of the year.
“We tried to put a little fiscal wiggle room in for the new sheriff,” he said.
Commissioner Chip Bertino asked whether overtime, which is projected to increase 116 percent in the coming year, was the result of scheduling or a lack of manpower.
Lt. Andrew McGee said it was the result of both. He said officers spent “an exorbitant” amount of time in court and that the office struggled to staff area schools and provide assistance to Ocean City. He said the agency spent 1,000 hours a year in Ocean City. He also explained that if an officer worked while off-duty, even if it was only for five minutes, that officer would receive three hours of overtime.
“That’s in line with the federal laws,” McGee said.
Commissioner Jim Bunting questioned the increase in overtime.
“Explain it to me again why there’s not a relationship between having new deputies and overtime,” he said.
Dods said that officers were spending more time in court and assisting other agencies in the county.
“A lot of it is we spend a fair amount of time in Ocean City,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said that was no excuse.
“Every year we seem to blame Ocean City for our overtime woes…,” Mitrecic said. “It’s very offensive to me because Ocean City is still part of this county. They may change that shortly if they can but until they do it’s our duty as part of the sheriff’s budget to help protect Ocean City.”
He added that he often saw deputies idling as they talked to each other in the median of Route 113. He said he’d requested information from Ocean City’s police chief regarding the hours county deputies spent in the resort.
Dods said it was his duty to track how the Sheriff’s Office used its funding.
“I’m not picking on Ocean City,” he said. “My responsibility is to show where the hours are being spent.”
Commissioner Ted Elder asked why the increase in court time wasn’t affecting the other departments involved.
“Your budget is 12 percent higher than last year and a big part of it is this overtime and expensive salaries,” Elder said. “We sat here and listened to the court, Judge Shockley, and we’ve had Mr. McDermott, the acting state’s attorney, with a budget that’s almost flat from last year. If there’s all this extra time in court I don’t understand why it affects the sheriff’s department and not the court or the state’s attorney’s office who has to handle all this.”
Dods said that deputies spent most of their time in district court, not circuit court. When Elder asked how much arrests had increased in recent years, Lt. Jeff Burht said there had been significant growth. He said officers were constantly being asked to patrol various areas of the county.
“We get complaints every single day of ‘we need people there’ and ‘we need people here,’” he said. “Things are going on. I myself expect the guys and gals to work. I even go out and I work also. We do bring up overtime because we’re making arrests. We’re not sitting there not doing anything.”
When asked about the revenue generated during the policing process, officers said it went to the state, as it funded district court as well as the police training commission. Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw asked if the county should spend more time pursuing local drug crimes, which could result in forfeited funds, as opposed to targeting criminals passing through the county on Route 113.
“In my opinion we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot,” Dods said, pointing out that drugs on their way to dealers in places like Philadelphia would gradually make their way back to the area. “By intercepting it in transit we’re able to make a bigger impact.”
Bertino asked whether the Sheriff’s Office was having trouble filling school deputy positions. Lt. Neil Adams said the job had changed in recent years and it was difficult to find interested officers.
“Who in the heck wants to go into schools now?” he said. “When the program was first started they were more or less security guards. Since then, with the event of social media and how that’s spread and how that’s grown it’s gotten far more complicated. They’re having to do full investigations and the main thing is we can’t find qualified people that want to come on a part time basis.”
While making those positions full time and offering benefits would likely fix that, that change was deemed too expensive to include in the proposed budget.
“We recognized the fiscal limitations on that,” Dods said.
While Mitrecic suggested that non-salary expenditures and overtime should be limited at both the Sheriff’s Office and the State’s Attorney’s Office until the election this fall, so that whoever was elected wouldn’t be left short of funding, county staff said that would not be an issue. Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said staff monitored department budgets throughout the year and would notice any drastic changes.
“I really don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Higgins said.