As Effingham County commissioners voted to trim the sheriff’s office budget for the current fiscal year, they also bandied about possible cost-saving measures they hope Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie employs.
Commissioners continued to question the sheriff’s take-home vehicle policy and other aspects of his spending. County figures show the sheriff’s office has outspent its fiscal year 2012 budget by approximately $700,000. Commissioners and staff also went through possible future savings by combining the sheriff’s dispatch section with the 911 operations center.
“It is not our position to tell him how or where to save money,” County Administrator David Crawley said.
“That’s my goal, to identify things that can be done. I would hope he would see that and say, ‘you’re right, this is something we can do,’” Commissioner Steve Mason said.
Adequate funding of sheriff’s departments has been the subject of court cases in the state, county community relations director Adam Kobek said.
“The courts have several opinions on cuts to sheriff department budgets,” he said. “You cannot divest the duties of the sheriff. You must reasonably and adequately fund for the provision of personnel and equipment to enable the sheriff to perform his duties.”
“We can talk about cars and deputies and 911 all night long,” said Commissioner Bob Brantley. “But to me, it’s about the 29,000 property owners paying taxes in the county. And they deserve a better accounting. What about the $700,000 over budget? I’ve seen nothing that says where that money was spent.”
According to county figures, since 2002, the sheriff’s personnel ranks have grown at a pace faster than the county’s population.
Commissioners and staff delved into potential benefits of merging the sheriff’s dispatch office into the Multi-Agency Call Center, or E-911 center. County staff said the center easily could serve as a Georgia Crime Information Center/Criminal Justice Information Services hub, and a local police department was willing to serve as the sponsoring law enforcement agency.
“GCIC can be sponsored by any criminal justice agency,” Kobek said. “The sponsoring agency has to maintain control, which is correct. The sheriff’s presentation maintained the only way it could be sponsored is if the sheriff’s department did it.”
Kobek noted the 911 center is under the control of a committee, composed of the sheriff, the three municipal police chiefs, the Emergency Medical Services director and the Emergency Management Agency director. The 911 center handles dispatch for Springfield and Guyton’s police departments, while the sheriff’s dispatch handles calls for the ECSO and Rincon.
Kobek said even if four dispatch officers were moved from the sheriff’s supervision to the 911 center, the sheriff’s warrants division would remain. There also would be fewer transferred calls from 911 to the sheriff’s dispatch section. The county would have to install a GCIC terminal at the 911 center, at the cost of $3,000.
“It’s our position that consolidation of dispatch service does not eliminate the sheriff’s office from dispatch services,” Kobek said.
But moving four sheriff’s dispatchers to the 911 center would mean not having to add staff to the 911 center later, Crawley pointed out.
“The savings are more in the future as we move forward and have to hire additional staff to handle call demand,” he said. “Many of the calls that come into 911 have to be transferred. This would eliminate some of that with this merger. We’re looking not just at today but what is best for the future.”
Merging the sheriff’s dispatch with the 911 also would mean not having to build a communications room in the planned jail/sheriff’s administration complex, staff and commissioners said.
“In the long run, I think it’s the right move,” added Commissioner Steve Mason, “because we won’t have to build a communications area in the new jail.”
Commissioner Reggie Loper offered that if the board moved those sheriff’s dispatch positions to the 911 center, the commissioners could let the sheriff keep his take-home cars.
“We spent big money on that center, we ought to use that 911 center and move all dispatch to the 911 center and let Jimmy keep his cars,” he said. “Maybe it won’t help us on this go-round, but maybe it will help us in the future. There’s no reason for us not to use it.”
Commissioner Phil Kieffer inquired how Loper planned to implement that move, if the sheriff did not want to go along with it. He also wondered about the actual savings if dispatchers were shifted from one budget — the sheriff’s office — to another budget — the 911 center, which has a special fund.
County staff also presented several options that could be used for the sheriff’s take-home car policy. One set of calculations shows the take-home policy costs the county $378,242.
The sheriff’s capital request of more than $1 million for 18 new patrol vehicles, four investigators’ cars, two vehicles for the drug suppression unit, three humane enforcement trucks and one crime scene unit vehicle was denied. No new sheriff’s vehicles have been purchased in two years, and those expenses come out of the general fund.
The county has seven vehicles allotted as take-home units. The sheriff’s office has nearly 90 vehicles in its fleet, with 11 spares. The conditions of the spares range widely, however.
The cost of 47 deputies driving home cars in the county costs $82,250 a year in fuel, county staff calculations show, and the 33 deputies who live out-of-county have a fuel tab of $92,400 each year. At 34 cents a mile, the maintenance costs are $203,592, according to county figures.
Mason said he favored deputies taking home sheriff’s office vehicles — but it’s the number of cars and leaving the county each day and the distance those cars go that has him concerned.
“We are not going to fund what we consider frivolous,” he said. “The people who are calling me are tired of this. They are tired of the cars going outside the county. They think it’s wasteful and something needs to be done. Some effort needs to be made to reduce this. The ones that are grandfathered in, we need to encourage them to move closer.”
Mason said he sees Sheriff McDuffie’s point about deputies being able to respond quickly to incidents if he needs to call them in.
“The deputies living 40, 50 miles away, I can’t see the argument for that,” he said.
Commissioner Vera Jones, though, said some of these deputies came to work for the ECSO with a take-home car as part of the package.
If the county made up for the benefit of a take-home car through additional salary, the county could face a greater payroll tax burden, she pointed out.
“I’m not 100 percent in favor of cars leaving the county,” she said. “But I want to take a look at all sides at all of the issues. Some of those people could live in Port Wentworth and they could get to something in Rincon faster. If they leave in Sylvania, they could get to Clyo cheaper and faster.
“But the most important thing in my mind is anything we feel he needs to reduce, we need to do our best in working with him on negotiating that.”
Options for a revised take-home policy — the sheriff’s current policy allows for deputies who live in Effingham and those who live in adjoining counties to have a take-home car, with one deputy who lives two counties away having been grandfathered in — include allowing those of the rank of sergeant or above to have take-home cars. K9 officers also would be allowed take-home cars, and those corporal and lower in rank would have take-home cars, if they live in the county. On-call deputies also would be permitted take-home cars.
A second scenario allows for sergeants and above to have take-home vehicles if they live in the county. K9 officers would be allowed take-home cars, regardless of residence. Those who are sergeants or greater in rank but live outside the county would park their sheriff’s vehicles at the closest county facility.
A third option, the most similar to Chatham County Sheriff’s Office’s practice, calls for investigators, crime scene deputies, humane enforcement and drug unit personnel to have take-home cars. Corporal level and below living outside the county would park at the nearest county facility to their home.
A variation on the third option would allow for deputies in specialized units to have take-home cars, regardless of their county of residence.
“This does not create a hot seat policy, and the sheriff would still be able to assign vehicles for home to work travel at his leisure, according to his policy,” Kobek said. “The county cannot choose a policy for him.”
Fuel costs of the options range from $47,052 to $16,140.
Kobek said county staff performed its own calculations on the sheriff’s energy savings at the administrative offices and was able to substantiate those savings of nearly $12,000.