Sheriff’s Budget Draws Questions From Legislators

The Legislative Public Safety Committee reviewed an amendment for the 2017 budget for year end reconciliations from the Office of the Sheriff, which drew questions from Legislature Chairman PJ Wendel and Committee Chairman Terry Niebels P-J photo by Katrina Fuller

Some call it “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul,” but the Sheriff’s Office is in need of funds from another department to balance its budget for 2017.

During Wednesday’s Legislative Public Safety Committee meeting, the numbers prompted questions from legislators, including Legislature Chairman PJ Wendel, R-Lakewood. Wendel said he is concerned about the Sheriff’s Office budget because the numbers have exceeded what has been budgeted every year for the past three years. Wendel discussed a contract deal that was put in place in 2016 that was supposed to save the county money.

“Sitting in those meetings and deliberations – and I voted against the contract and faced a lot of criticism – with the understanding that we were assured we would have those retirements, and we didn’t,” Wendel said. “We were assured that this would be a savings to the county, and then we see we’re getting hit for $738,000. Moreover, what’s concerning is the increases that have taken place in the last three years, and maybe we can touch on that again.”

Wendel said the Sheriff’s Office has gone over $2.813 million in total over the last three years. He said it was $600,000 the first year, $900,000 in 2016 and $1.3 million in 2017.

“Is it concerning or not concerning that we find those numbers in the budget every year?” Wendel said. “I guess at the end of the year, we’re going to say this is cost-neutral, but we found $1.2 million in the budget, $800,000 of which isn’t from (the Sheriff’s) budget.”

Committee Chairman Terry Niebel, R-Dunkirk, said the figures wouldn’t be considered cost-neutral because the department is taking $370,000 from social services.

“If we didn’t have to take it from that department to make up the shortfall here in the Sheriff’s Office we could use it some other place, or better yet, we could not budget for it and reduce the taxes,” Niebel said. “It is a concern.”

Niebel said there was a shortfall of $296,909 in overtime. He understood that overtime is often unexpected, but said something still has to be done.

Kitty Crow, Chautauqua County finance director, said the legislature was aware that the contract was adopted in late 2016 and had not been accounted for in the 2017 budget.

Crow said members of the bargaining unit converted to the high deductible plan, which is a much lesser cost than the previous plan.

“These are long-term savings we’ll see every year,” she said.

When it comes to retirements, Crow said there were 10 last year as opposed to the normal 1.8 retirements.

“So we fell a little short?” Niebel asked.

“Yeah, but 10 out of 12 is pretty good compared to the normal two,” Crow said.

Wendel wondered aloud where the end of the increases would be.

Sheriff Joe Gerace said between jail overcrowding and other challenges, the department has done well this year.

“We’re less than half a percent over budget,” Gerace said. “That’s landing a helicopter on a pin head.”

In order to lower overtime costs, he said the solution is to hire more full-time staff. However, Gerace said that won’t necessarily be a savings when employee benefits and other costs are factored in. Plus, he said the full-time staff will have vacation time, so staff will have to be available to cover those shifts as well.

Overtime becomes mandatory when shifts cannot be covered, Gerace said. Officers who are there then must stay until they are relieved. Gerace said no one wants that overtime, but it is required.

“They become prisoners themselves,” he said.

The amendment to the 2017 budget will go before the full Legislature next Wednesday in Mayville.