Commissioners Looking Forward To Working With New Sheriff; Officials Hope To Improve Trust Level

Commissioners Looking Forward To Working With New Sheriff; Officials Hope To Improve Trust Level
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SNOW HILL – County leaders voiced concern over hiring, vehicles, overtime and even the use of seized drug funds in a discussion of the budget proposed by the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office this week.

On Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners made significant cuts to the proposed budget after expressing frustration with various aspects of the agency, which is headed by Sheriff Reggie Mason. Harold Higgins, the county’s chief administrative officer, said the situation could improve once a new sheriff was elected later this year.

“I think going forward it’s a level of trust,” Higgins said. “Let’s face it, we have not had the best of relationships the last year or so with the sheriff’s office for whatever reason. I think with the new sheriff it gives you the opportunity to reinforce procedures that are in place.”

Initially, the sheriff’s office requested $8.3 million in funding for the coming fiscal year. The county’s budget review committee cut $520,404 by adjusting the department’s personnel request. The commissioners went on to cut an additional $309,000 during a work session Tuesday.

Though the sheriff’s office wanted funding to hire three new deputies and a school resource officer, the committee suggested providing funding for the resource officer and for the hiring of two new deputies but not until January. Higgins said that would give the new sheriff, who takes over at the end of the year, the opportunity to hire the new officers.

Commissioner Jim Bunting said he didn’t think the new deputies should be included in the budget at all. He said the new sheriff could ask for funding for new deputies during next year’s budget process.

“I’ve heard both candidates say they don’t need any new sheriffs,” Bunting said. “I don’t know why it’s in there at all.”

Commissioner Ted Elder also spoke against hiring new officers. He said new employees would only contribute to the county’s mounting OPEB (other post-employment benefits) costs.

“We keep adding to the problem,” he said.

Elder said the sheriff was already in charge of a staff of 120 people and that the department regularly exceeded its allotted overtime funding.

“The more you add these positions the higher it goes,” he said.

The commissioners agreed to include funding in the budget for the school resource officer but not the new deputies.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic expressed concern regarding the new vehicles — four-wheel drive Chevy Tahoes — the sheriff wanted to purchase. He said the department didn’t need more four-wheel drive vehicles, particularly since the area saw little snow.

Bunting agreed.

“We’re not Alaska law,” he said.

Commissioner Bud Church said that the four-wheel drive vehicles would ensure that officers could respond to emergencies in all types of weather.  He said the Tahoe was also a vehicle capable of carrying all of an officer’s gear.

“You don’t want to be driving a sedan with all that equipment,” he said.

Mitrecic said that while it made sense for the sheriff’s office to have some four-wheel drive vehicles, every officer didn’t need one.

Commissioner Chip Bertino asked what the cost difference was between a four-wheel drive Tahoe and a two-wheel drive Tahoe. Staff indicated it was close to $3,000.

Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw suggested providing funding for four-wheel drive vehicles but fewer of them than the nine requested.

“I’m inclined to say cut the number but give them a piece of dependable equipment,” he said.

Based on a suggestion from Mitrecic, the commissioners agreed to include funding for five four-wheel drive vehicles and four two-wheel drive vehicles in the budget.

Bunting went on to ask whether the county was monitoring grants the sheriff’s office received.

“Are we paying attention to these different grants that seem to me to make the department get bigger and grow?” he said. “It seems to be growing and growing and growing.”

Higgins said the commissioners were typically asked to approve grants before they were accepted by the sheriff’s office. He said another issue though was the sheriff’s use of confiscated funds. He said that while the agency went through a federal reporting process regarding its use of confiscated drug funds, the county also needed to be aware of how that money was spent.

“If you were to ask me is that to the level it needs to be no, but we’ve made changes to make sure that’s under the discretion of the finance officer,” Higgins said. “We’re trying to develop controls to put in place so any expenditure that is spent you know about it.”

Nevertheless, Bunting said the sheriff’s office had used the funds to acquire a new motorcycle in recent weeks.

Higgins said the purchasing process had already been completed before county officials were aware of it.

“We have raised concerns with those in the command staff,” Higgins said. “That’s not to happen. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

The commissioners expressed frustration over the fact that though seized funds had paid for the motorcycle, its upkeep would now be the responsibility of the county. Mitrecic said the added dangers of motorcycles could even increase the county’s worker’s compensation expenses.

“The cost of the motorcycle is a very small issue as opposed to the mushroom that comes from the purchase of that bike,” Mitrecic said.

He said seized drug funds had also paid for unnecessary training and equipment that wasn’t needed.

“It’s almost, and I hate to use the term, it’s almost like the sheriff’s slush fund …,” he said. “Hopefully with the new sheriff that comes on board he will be a little bit more understanding of our concerns.”

Church said he wanted to see more accountability on spending from the sheriff’s office.

“Anything’s possible,” Higgins said. “We’ve struggled with that in the past. The sheriff’s an elected state official. How we control their expenditures is a budgetary process.”

He said if county staff reviewed the sheriff’s budget, they wouldn’t necessarily question expenses. Higgins said that if staff saw a line item marked “sniper training,” for example, they probably wouldn’t analyze it further.

“I probably shouldn’t bring this up but there’s a difference between a military sniper training course and a law enforcement sniper training course as opposed to a deer hunting sniper course,” Church said.

Higgins stressed that a new sheriff would be in place by the end of the year.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.