County residents may soon see the day when their sheriff’s department doesn’t respond to non-life-threatening calls as quickly and simply can’t do much in the way of preventing crime.
At least that’s what Sheriff Thomas Lorey said will happen if Fulton County supervisors continue to make cuts to his department. His concern is mounting a week after the county’s Finance Committee recommended to the Board of Supervisors that it cut three of four vacant positions within the Sheriff’s Department to help balance the county budget next year.
“I don’t disagree with their job, and I don’t envy them,” Lorey said of county supervisors, “but I think the average taxpayer would rather see a tax increase than lose their police protection. If we were to have further cuts, there will be things that we can’t do and services we can’t provide anymore.”
The three positions at stake include an investigator and two road patrol deputies. Currently, the department employs 115 full-time employees, including corrections and secretarial staff.
An employee who plans to retire by the end of the year currently holds the soon-to-be vacant investigator position, Lorey said. Once that person retires, the department will be down to four investigators, one of which is bound by contract to work on welfare fraud cases for the Department of Social Services.
“So in essence, there will now be three investigators left doing work that five used to do,” Lorey said.
The department currently employs 30 road patrol deputies, including Lorey and Undersheriff Kevin Lenahan. Lorey said that for seven days a week and 24 hours a day, that doesn’t leave very many deputies on the road at a given time.
“The number one job of law enforcement in America is to prevent crime,” he said. “When you don’t have a road patrol, you don’t have a prevention factor out there. There’s a certain element of society that operates when they think they can get away with something. And if they don’t see any road patrol out there, naturally, it’s going to get worse.”
A still-struggling national and local economy creates a vicious cycle in crime rates, he said. In Fulton County, for example, there has been an increase the last several years in welfare fraud arrests, burglaries and domestic violence incidents.
“The worse the economy gets, the worse crime is going to be,” Lorey said. “People are going to be depressed and abuse substances such as alcohol, and it just adds to the load of domestic violence and criminal incidences we get. I think [crime] is increasing steadily the worse the economy gets.”
At a recent budget review committee meeting, Lorey responded to supervisors’ queries over items in the department’s budget. Supervisors approved cuts in several areas, including $5,000 from its communications overtime account and $10,000 from the jail’s medical account.
But since personnel is approximately 75 percent of the department’s budget, supervisors decided one week later to recommend to the full board that it eliminate three vacancies within the department. They also recommended cutting six vacant positions in various other county departments.
Lorey said eliminating those positions and the benefits that come with them would save the county approximately $750,000.
In the 16 years he has served the department, Lorey said, about a dozen sheriff’s positions have been done away with, mostly through attrition. Last year, the county never filled a few positions vacated by retiring employees.
“They were taken right out of the budget, and I thought that might be the end of it, but obviously it’s not,” Lorey said. “It appears to me they’re taking more and more every year, and eventually, nothing’s going to exist anymore.”
Supervisors have been struggling to balance next year’s budget within a state-mandated 2 percent tax cap. With no mandate relief offered by the state, supervisors have said that core county services will eventually need to be cut, and that includes public safety.
Board Chairman David Howard and Public Safety Committee Chairman John Callery did not return calls Wednesday.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Department dispatches all emergency services in the county, which encompasses 533 square miles and has a population of about 53,000.
In nearby Montgomery County, the sheriff’s department is facing similar potential cuts during the county’s 2012 budget process. Sgt. Ray Waldynski said the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors is looking to cut four full-time deputy positions and a good portion of the department’s part-time positions.
“I think public safety should be the last thing cut, especially the way that things are now,” he said. “People want to cut the budget, but they still expect an immediate response when they call 911.”
When the department faced the possible elimination of road patrol staff in 2004, more than 100 law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency management officials gathered outside the county building to protest.
Waldynski said the department, which currently employs about 20 road patrol deputies and three investigators, tried to educate the public on what it means to have public safety cuts.
“We went door to door and had petitions out to the public, just trying to be aggressive, so they realize what we’re facing here,” he said, “because a lot of the time they don’t know what they’re facing. They know their taxes will stay the same, but they don’t know their public safety won’t.”
Lorey said he wants residents to know why the sheriff’s response time will be longer and why they won’t see as many employees around.
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Association, a nonprofit organization that provides support to the sheriff’s office and meets monthly, launched an online initiative after word spread of last week’s committee recommendation. On its Facebook page, it is asking voters to show support for Lorey by voting Nov. 8. Although he’s running unopposed this year, the association still wants people to turn out and cast a vote.
A recommended budget will be presented to the full board Nov. 14. Supervisors will then decide when to hold a public hearing.
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Categories: Schenectady County