FINDLAY - If Hancock County Sheriff Michael Heldman has to cut his 2003 budget by 11 percent, more than 26 of his 95 employees would be laid off in December.
That means an entire wing of the crowded county jail would have to close and 38 inmates would have to be released. It means that, at times, just one or two deputies would patrol the roads and respond to emergency calls.
At an hour-and-a-half-long meeting yesterday with county commissioners, sheriff's employees grilled commissioners about the impending budget crunch and urged them to enact a one-year, emergency 0.5 percent sales tax dedicated to law enforcement. Commissioner Virginia Clymer said she would be willing to do so, but her two colleagues said they would not.
Commissioners Steve Oman and David Spahr said they want to wait to see how county revenue comes out at the end of the year and whether the state reduces local government funds. Both said they believe voters, not commissioners, should decide whether to raise the county's 5.5 percent sales tax.
“My opinion is, if we put it on, we'd be referendummed in a heartbeat,” Mr. Oman said.
Ms. Clymer said she promised her constituents she would not raise the sales tax, but she feels different now, and she thinks most people would agree.
“I think we should pass it [as an emergency] and put it on the ballot in May. Now it's an emergency, a safety risk, and anyone in the county who didn't agree is not a good citizen,” she said.
“My first concern is for the safety of this county, and after what happened this weekend, I think we should take that as a wakeup call,” Ms. Clymer said of home invasions that occurred in two rural areas of the county.
A 64-year-old Benton Ridge woman was assaulted, tied up, and robbed by three men who knocked at her door and asked for gas Saturday evening. Eight people at a migrant camp northwest of Arcadia were tied up and robbed at gunpoint when three men entered a residence there about 1 a.m. Monday.
“We have 72,000 citizens out there who do not know what's going to happen,” Ms. Clymer said. “I was at a meeting last night where a farmer said he told his wife to keep the door locked and don't let anyone in. That's pretty bad.”
Deputies and corrections officers repeatedly asked commissioners what remedies they were considering for next year's projected budget shortfall and why they did not anticipate the problems sooner. They had few answers other than to say they were studying the situation.
“All options have to stay on the table,” Mr. Spahr said. “I don't think we're at an emergency yet.”
Sgt. Tom Blunk told commissioners the layoffs would mean deputies could not respond to many calls, would have to handle domestic disputes and other explosive situations on their own, and would not have time to serve civil protection orders and perform other potentially life-saving duties.
“What more do you need for it to be an emergency situation?” he asked.
Mr. Oman stressed that the 11 percent budget cuts to each county office were not carved in stone. Still, department heads have been ordered to submit a budget with that reduction by Friday.
Sheriff Heldman said his office's budget was cut by 3 percent last year so he eliminated new-equipment purchases and reduced his supply budget. With personnel consuming about 81 percent of his $5.2 million budget, he has nothing else to cut but employees.
He said the cuts would be seniority-based and would affect administrative personnel, corrections officers, and enforcement deputies alike. Because he has to give employees a 30-day layoff notice and because the first pay period of the new year begins Dec. 8, the pink slips would have to go out Nov. 8, he said.
The sheriff said a sales tax increase is the county's “only quick option” at this time. If employees are laid off and the positions are eventually reinstated, it would cost the county more than $45,000 to train each new road deputy, more than $20,000 to train each new corrections officer.
“If we lose any of those people, all we've done is trained good, qualified people for other agencies,” the sheriff said.
Hancock County is not the only one facing budget cuts. Williams County Sheriff Alan Word said last week that he plans to sue county commissioners for more money to run his department.