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Commissioners question sheriff on budget
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Effingham County commissioners want to take another look at how much the sheriff’s office is spending and wants to spend for the coming fiscal year.

Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie told commissioners his office has enacted a litany of cost-saving measures. But commissioners questioned how the sheriff figured his savings and some of his practices, particularly the use of take-home cars.

"I have no problem with a take-home car policy, as long as the cars stay in the county," said Commissioner Steve Mason. "I don’t think it’s a service to the citizens for the cars to leave the county."

The sheriff’s office has had a take-home car policy since Sheriff McDuffie joined the department in 1987 and will continue to do so, he said. He pointed to a recent shooting involving two Port Wentworth officers, and the Port Wentworth Police Department called the ECSO for backup. The ECSO has seven road patrol deputies per 12-hour shift.

The sheriff said deputies having take-home cars is a safety issue — when he needs off-duty personnel to respond quickly to a scene, they can, in no small part because they have a take-home vehicle.

"It’s happening more and more and more," he said.

On the night four years ago when Philip Heidt was shot and killed, "I was calling deputies from everywhere," McDuffie said.

Mason pointed to a deputy who has a take-home sheriff’s vehicle and lives in Liberty County.

"How are we justifying it as a public safety issue if this car is in Hinesville?" Mason asked. "I’d hate to be in Clyo needing help, and I’ve got to wait on somebody coming from Hinesville. That’s what we’re looking at."

Said McDuffie: "If you’re in Clyo and the Hinesville officer has to get to you, then something bad’s going on."

The sheriff said he’s willing to work with the commissioners, but the two issues he will remain steadfast on are keeping the dispatch unit in-house and not moving it to the 911 center and the take-home cars. The ECSO has 33 cars under the take-home policy.

"They put their lives on the line every night," he said. "We’re going to continue to have a take-home car policy. I hope we never have to use them. But I think that’s a benefit to the citizens in the county."

Mason offered that once the county agrees to pay for the cars, those vehicles are at the sheriff’s discretion.

"But we don’t have to fund them, if it’s not a public safety issue," he said.

"But it is," the sheriff countered.

The sheriff office’s budget for fiscal year 2012 was $5.4 million, down from almost $5.5 million in FY11, and the FY13 recommendation is for $4.875 million. Sheriff McDuffie showed commissioners what his office has done to save money.

In addition to what have been higher fuel costs, the sheriff’s office also is pointing to higher costs for utilities, increase in service calls and an increase in jail population. There also are the expenses for repairs and maintenance of an aging patrol fleet and an administrative complex that is scheduled to be replaced.

The ECSO criminal investigation division has had an increase of 15 percent in the number of cases so far in 2012.

Sheriff McDuffie also said he has borne the costs incumbent with moving animal control under his domain and with providing security for both the judicial complex and the renovated historic courthouse.

"We’ve increased personnel," he said. "We’ve put them in the courthouse. We’ve put them in the old courthouse. We’ve put them in humane enforcement. And we’re fixing to be tasked with a whole lot more. We’ve got House Bill 1176, which changes a lot of our misdemeanor stuff, and we’re going to be housing a lot more inmates.

"We’re not saying we’re not going to cut costs," Sheriff McDuffie continued. "We’re going to cut costs everywhere we can."

The ECSO also has lost 14 enforcement positions since 2007, the sheriff said, leading to increased overtime for the existing staff.

"There’s no question that the budget is on the rise, for a number of reasons — higher fuel costs, higher utility costs, average costs of service has gone up," said Deputy Matt Petrea. "Even the smallest difference is beneficial to the sheriff’s office, the county and the citizens."

Cutting vehicle usage

Patrol deputies also are required to park their cars for one hour per shift, which saves fuel and allows them to assist with walk-in reports and the dispatch office, according to Sheriff McDuffie. The ECSO estimates that saves $48,545 a year in vehicle fuel and maintenance costs.

The national average for the cost of wear and tear on one vehicle is 34 cents a mile, Petrea said.

"These are not normal vehicles," he added.

But Mason also wondered how much gas is burned as deputies go from their patrol routes back to the administrative complex for the required one-hour shutdown. Meanwhile, patrol deputies have had a 31.6 percent increase in incident reports from 2011. Patrol deputies have generated 3,000 more CRNs — case reference numbers — this year and have added 84,000 more patrol miles.

Deputies who live outside of Effingham take prisoners to other counties as they are on their way to or from work.

A four-day work week has cut down on utility costs, Sheriff McDuffie said, since they don’t have to turn on the lights or power their computers on Fridays. Detectives are on call and can work from home, rather than coming into the office. The sheriff’s office estimated it has saved more than $20,000 in utility costs through the four-day work week.

"We’ve got 16 employees who do not have to drive back and forth on Fridays," Petrea said. "These simple adjustments have been very successful at saving the county and our taxpayers around $106,000."

Mason again raised questions about how the sheriff’s office figured its savings.

"The math is confusing me," he said, "because the only way that math will work is if they’re driving to Jacksonville."

Turning out the lights

The ECSO also has taken other small steps to save on utilities, such as reducing the number of bulbs in each light fixture and turning out lights in offices that are not occupied. Also, motion-activated switches have been installed for lighting in restrooms and non-essential areas.

Sheriff McDuffie also said the ECSO has cut its paper use, relying more on email and reusing paper. The costs for such services as fingerprinting, criminal histories and expungements have been increased, bringing in more than $61,000.

The probate court collects fingerprinting fees for concealed weapons permits, which has brought in $4,320.

Though Scott Lewis was promoted to major, his wage scale went from hourly to salary, and Sheriff McDuffie said it actually has cut Maj. Lewis’ pay by $3,000 a year.

In all, efforts by the ECSO have resulted in more than $106,000 in savings over the past year, according to Sheriff McDuffie.

From the jail inmate commissary, the ECSO has generated money to put in new stainless steel tables for the inmate dorms, install a video recording system, install bunk beds for the growing jail population, paint, replace worn out jumpsuits, repair damages caused by inmates and purchase new transport vehicles. Those expenditures, the sheriff noted, came at no cost to taxpayers.

The use of door hangers by the civil division has meant fewer visits to residents who have a civil service impending. The ECSO estimates that has saved $22,000 a year.

Saving money through training

Online training from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, along with other measures, has saved more than $37,000 annually in training expenses, according to the ECSO.

With investigators trained in the cleanup of methamphetamine labs, the ECSO also has reduced the costs associated with meth lab arrests. Meth labs often consist of hazardous materials, and contractors that specialize in meth lab cleanup can charge as much as $7,500 for one meth lab cleanup.

Because the drug unit often uncovers more than one meth lab, having ECSO personnel trained in meth lab cleanup has saved the department $412,500 in those costs, Sheriff McDuffie said.

Through fines and fees and also through asset seizures, the ECSO drug suppression unit has recovered nearly $155,000. It also has made 59 arrests.

Sheriff McDuffie and county commissioners wrangled over the establishment of the traffic enforcement unit a year ago. Over the past year, traffic unit deputies have written 2,105 citations for safety violations, made 87 arrests for driving under the influence and generated more than $263,000 in fines.

"That’s 87 people off the road who should never have been on the road in the first place," Petrea said. "That saved a lot of people’s lives."

Sheriff McDuffie also reiterated his wish not to move the sheriff’s dispatch office to the 911 center. The sheriff’s office is the only 24-hour Georgia Crime Information Center and National Crime Information Center certified agency, and the 911 center currently lacks those qualifications. In order for the 911 center to earn GCIC/NCIC status, it would have to fall under the sheriff’s office, Sheriff McDuffie explained.

Moving the sheriff’s dispatch office to the 911 center would lead to deputies having to drive back and forth from the 911 center to the jail once they make an arrest on an active warrant.

Still, commissioners remained unconvinced of the take-home car policy’s effectiveness. Commissioner Bob Brantley added he wanted to see more information on the fines and fees generated.

"If there’s something that’s a safety issue, I’m all about that," Mason said. "But if it’s a perk of the job, then I don’t think the taxpayers need to pay for it. We’ve heard stories about cars with car seats in them. There’s no way that’s an approved use."

Said County Administrator David Crawley: "By allowing them a car to drive home, you are not incentivizing them to move to the county."

The sheriff defended his department’s efforts to reduce expenses and keep both the dispatch in-house and its take-home cars.

"It’s not like we’re not trying to save dollars," he said. "We have worked diligently to cut costs and provide a good service to the citizens."