The fight brewing in Barrow County between the county government and the sheriff feels like deja vu all over again. Didn’t we have ringside seats at this circus during the past four years?
For those who haven’t followed recent events, last week county manager Jock Connell, backed by board of commissioners chairman Pat Graham, announced that he is proposing to cut Sheriff Jud Smith’s budgets (sheriff’s office and county jail) by around $800,000 when the Oct. 1 fiscal year begins. That isn’t the only controversial proposal Graham and Connell will give to the full board of commissioners to consider, but it is perhaps the one that will generate the most fireworks.
Connell’s justification for the proposed large cut to the sheriff’s budget is that the sheriff’s office and jail have not been cut as much as other areas of the county government since the start of the Great Recession. Although the sheriff’s budgets have been cut since 2009, they weren’t hit as deeply as other areas of public safety and the county’s general government.
But there are four problems with this proposal: Financial, legal, political and practical.
Financially, the proposed cuts to the sheriff’s budgets isn’t a bid to lower overall county government spending. In fact, overall county spending in Connell’s budget is slated to go up slightly. So this move is really just an effort to move money around by shifting it away from the sheriff’s budgets and into other things that Connell and Graham want to fund.
Some of that the current BOC has no control over. Previous administrations got the county into a lot of debt and now those payments are coming due.
But the upcoming budget plan also calls for a $400,000 contingency fund. While it’s always good to have some extra money on hand for unexpected expenses, contingency funds are sometimes abused by local government officials. They often become little more than slush funds used to finance pet projects BOC members want in their districts. In effect, half of the proposed cuts to the sheriff’s office are being shifted to this contingency fund where there is no clear indication of how those dollars will be spent next year.
In addition, the county raised the millage rate last year to create some money for capital expenditures. But if the county is really pressed for money, it could use some or all of that for non-capital expenses.
Which brings up the bigger financial picture. The Barrow County government isn’t as bad off financially as it was a couple of years ago. It has around $7 million in reserves now, a far cry from where it has been. And the county’s tax digest appears to have hit bottom and is going back up. Unless there is another major recession soon, the county government shouldn’t be struggling for survival in the coming year as it did two years ago.
Given that the county government isn’t in dire financial straights today, why make a proposal to gut the sheriff’s budgets so much?
The second problem Connell and Graham face is legal. The sheriff isn’t just another county department; he is a constitutional officer and independent of the board of commissioners. Unlike some county department heads, the sheriff doesn’t answer to the BOC; he answers to the voters.
But the sheriff’s budget does come from the BOC since he has no power to levy his own taxes (there was a time in Georgia when the sheriff kept a large part of the fines he collected and used them to fund his department.) On the other hand, the BOC cannot legally deny the sheriff adequate funding. The issue, of course, is how one defines “adequate.”
So far, neither Graham nor Connell have released any data that purports to show that the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office is overfunded, but Smith has a lot of data to show the pay of his officers and jailers is very much underfunded.
Sheriffs have sometimes sued their boards of commissioners during these funding fights and more often than not, the sheriff wins. Unless Connell and Graham are able to defend their proposed cuts with hard data, they are opening the BOC to a costly legal challenge it may not win.
The third problem with the proposal to cut the sheriff’s budgets is that it is political dynamite for Connell and Graham. Both leaders just took their positions earlier this year and have barely gotten their feet wet in the swamp of Barrow County politics. Neither has had enough time in county governance to have built many political alliances or a public consensus. They are barely out of the gate. Smith, in contrast, has survived two election cycles.
So why are they picking a fight with the most powerful political figure in Barrow County?
It really doesn’t make much sense, especially since Smith spent the past four years crossing swords over the exact same issue with former BOC chairman Danny Yearwood. By taking on Smith, both Connell and Graham are aligning themselves with Yearwood in the public’s minds. Do they really want to spend the next four years mired in the muck of controversy the way Yearwood spent 2009-2012?
The last problem with the proposal to drastically cut the sheriff’s budget is the most important one to consider: It’s not practical given the depth of the crime problem in Barrow County. Crime is the county’s biggest problem, especially the rate of alcohol and drug abuse that underpins so many other community crimes, such as property thefts, domestic violence and DUIs.
Drug abuse is holding Barrow County back on many levels. If you were an employer, would you want to bring your business to Barrow County where a large number of your potential workforce might fail a drug test? If you were a family looking to move out of metro Atlanta to Northeast Georgia, would you bring your children to a community infested by drugs?
In this light, to cut funding to the sheriff’s department sends a signal to potential industries and families that the county’s leadership is not really committed to putting a stop to its drug problems. The practical outcome of such a move is to further erode Barrow County’s image in the eyes of those who might otherwise want to invest their money or their children’s futures here. Cutting the ability of the sheriff’s office to fight crime is a self-defeating move for county leaders.
Fundamentally, Connell and Graham’s justification for proposing the cuts — that the sheriff’s office and jail haven’t experienced as much pain as other areas of county government — is very weak.
So what if that’s true? Isn’t public safety the key focus of a county government? Shouldn’t that always be the last area to be cut when times get hard? It’s a straw-man argument.
If Graham and Connell are going to stand a chance in their fight with Smith over the sheriff’s budget, they will have to accomplish two very difficult tasks.
First, they will have to convince the public that their plan to make deep cuts to the sheriff’s office is financially necessary to the county. That will be difficult to do given the higher tax digest, last year’s millage hike, a proposed contingency fund of $400,000 and $7 million of reserves in the bank.
Second, they will have to find some hard data that shows that Smith’s office and jail are currently being vastly overfunded, overstaffed, or that the sheriff is grossly mismanaging taxpayer money.
I’m not sure they can do either of those, or why they would want to take on a fight with the sheriff in the first place. It’s a fight that’s likely to leave them politically wounded before they really get started in their new positions.
Maybe Connell and Graham don’t realize it, but they need Sheriff Smith more than he needs them.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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