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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Promotions may provoke budget crisis

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BOWLING GREEN - With his 12-year run as Wood County sheriff coming to an end, John Kohl has made a flurry of promotions that some say could tie the new sheriff's hands - and budget.

"If the commissioners don't fund it in January, I'll be the new sheriff who has to come in and say, 'Sorry. The money's not here to pay for this,' " said Mark Wasylyshyn, a Perrysburg police sergeant who defeated Sheriff Kohl in the March 2 Republican primary. "I absolutely don't want to lay anyone off."

A review of payroll records for the sheriff's office since the election showed that eight employees were promoted over the past three months, including four deputies who were named sergeants and two sergeants who became lieutenants. During the same period, one sergeant retired and Chief Deputy Mark Hummer resigned.

Sheriff Kohl said the promotions were given either to fill vacancies or were made as part of a staff reorganization he decided to undertake when his chief deputy left May 9 to take a job as Lake Township police chief.

He did not name a new chief deputy - one of three non-union positions the sheriff has the right to fill - and said he wouldn't have appointed a new chief deputy had he been re-elected. The salary for the vacant position is being used to cover raises for the recently promoted deputies, he confirmed last week after being pressed about how is he is paying for the promotions.

"I'm living within the budget," Sheriff Kohl said.

The question Sergeant Wasylyshyn has is whether he can live within that budget when he takes office. He will be unopposed in the fall election. He said he intends to appoint a chief deputy, and, because the promotions were made prior to July 3, the new command officers will have passed their six-month probation period and in effect be permanent.

"I would hope [the sheriff] had the interests of Wood County citizens at heart" when he made the promotions, Sergeant Wasylyshyn said. "It's only suspect that all these promotions happened after he lost the primary but before July 3. I think if he knew he was going to take care of people or make changes, he knew he had to do it before July 3."

Sheriff Kohl dismisses such allegations.

"They're trusted, loyal, mature, capable, competent employees, and all of them were here - with the exception of the last sergeant - prior to my arrival," he said of the recently promoted deputies.

How the changes are viewed by his successor is not his concern, he says."I'm still sheriff until the end of the year, and I have to efficiently manage my office to the end of the year," Sheriff Kohl said.

Sergeant Wasylyshyn said there won't be a problem if county commissioners are willing to fund the positions for 2005.

With pay raises ranging from 91 cents an hour to $3.57 per hour, the higher salaries will cost the county an additional $42,660 a year, records show.

In October, the sheriff will be required to submit a budget proposal for 2005 to county commissioners, who will have to approve the appropriations in December. Sheriff Kohl said he's also not concerned about how the promotions and reorganization will impact next year's bottom line.

"That's not my problem," he said. "When I came into office, I had to live with the previous sheriff's budget."

County commissioners sent a letter of caution to Sheriff Kohl in May after they heard about the mid-year promotions. They told him he could not dip into other accounts to pay for raises not covered in his 2004 budget.

"Appropriations for other items such as overtime cannot be used to supplement base salary appropriations," commissioners wrote. "Any changes made in this regard will not be recognized during the 2005 appropriations process."

Commissioners went on to say that the county remains "in a period of reduced revenues and [commissioners] do not anticipate a change in our ability to provide additional funding during the current budget year."

Still, Commissioner Tim Brown defended the outgoing sheriff, saying he is doing what is within his rights and responsibilities as the county's chief law enforcement officer. He oversees 120 employees and a $6 million annual budget.

"I believe he has a responsibility to finish out his term and provide service to the citizens to the best of his ability, and I think that's what he's trying to do," said Mr. Brown, a Republican who supported Sheriff Kohl's bid for re-election. "His disappointment in not being re-elected and his mandate to run his office are two different things."

Sheriff Kohl took his defeat hard. Shortly after the March 2 primary, he approached Terry Burton, elections director, to find out what his options were. Could he run as a write-in candidate in November?

Mr. Burton said he told the sheriff Ohio law did not permit anyone who ran in a primary election to run for office in the general election. A few weeks later, the sheriff called and asked for a written legal opinion on the matter.

Prosecutor Ray Fischer sent him a letter April 26 reiterating what is known as the "sore loser's statute."

Sheriff Kohl admits he was disappointed with the election, which he lost by just 71 votes. He declined to comment further about his defeat or how he will handle the transition with his successor.

Sergeant Wasylyshyn said he's had virtually no communication with the sheriff and doesn't expect that to change before he takes over Jan. 3.

"That's unfortunate for the citizens of Wood County," he said, adding, "I look at both the issues of promotions and lack of communication as minor issues. They're different hurdles we have, and they're small hurdles."

Robert Cornwell, long-time executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs Association, declined to comment on the Wood County situation, but said it's not unheard of. He said he's always pleased when an outgoing sheriff is gracious about handing over the reins.

"I would expect them to act as professional going into the office as they leave the office," Mr. Cornwell said.

"They have maintained a certain integrity and good reputation and in order to leave your own legacy, you should leave in the same way."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.



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