Sheriff trims office hours

Sheriff trims office hours

CANYON CITY - This month, citizens must schedule visits to the Grant County Sheriff's Office within a three-week, 24-hour window of opportunity.

Effective June 9-25, the sheriff's office cut its open hours to 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The partial closure is "due to budget constraints and restrictions," Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer reported in a press release June 4.

"Emergency calls and general calls for service will still be provided by calling either 911 or 575-1131 respectively," the sheriff announced.

The partial closure allows Palmer to save about $2,000 by delaying the replacement of Jerry Daake, a key clerical and front-desk worker who retired June 6. Palmer said he has hired Robin Brooks of John Day to replace Daake, but she will not start until June 25. Her starting date coincides with the beginning of the next pay period and the onset of a new fiscal year.

"We'll still answer the calls," Palmer said. "We're just trying to nip and tuck where it doesn't affect the public."

County officials voiced mixed feelings about the reduction in office hours.

Grant County Judge Dennis Reynolds agreed that saving $2,000 is worth keeping Daake's job vacant for three weeks.

"Now is the time not to fill that job," he said.

Speaking from a budget manager's standpoint, however, treasurer Kathy Smith said the personnel move hits the wrong part of the sheriff's budget.

"That's not where he has the problem," she said.

County budget figures show that the sheriff's materials and services budget hemorrhaged. As Smith pointed out, this area of spending is not affected by the personnel line, where the curtailment of office hours will generate savings. Materials and services spending ran over in the areas of supplies (over by $646.84); telephone (over by $748.19); building maintenance (over by $4,942); training (over by $413); meals (over by $1,764.75); insurance (over by $1,307.96); and health services (over by $13,052).

The personnel line, notwithstanding recent upheaval with personnel costs in the wake of a shootout at Long Creek which left two deputies seriously injured, actually is in relatively good shape, according to county budget figures. The personal services budget contains $52,440.70 for the final month of June. An 11-month, $453,524 spend-down of a $505,965 budget line shows that personnel spending remains stable and in the black.

The sheriff's $169,295 budget for materials and services, however, dwindled to a precarious balance of $2,645 by the start of June. With the department spending about $15,000 a month in this area, it was easy for budget mangers to see that this section of the department budget threatened to run into the red by the end of the fiscal year.

Palmer acknowledged that he accrued unexpected expenses in materials and services, expenses related mostly to additional inmates housed in the Grant County Criminal Justice Facility.

"What caught us off-balance was we brought in all the INS inmates, and we didn't budget for it," he said, referring to illegal aliens in custody of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the erstwhile Immigration and Naturalization Service. In March, the Grant County Criminal Justice Facility began housing 25 illegal aliens from across the globe under a federal contract that promised the county about $505,000 a year in income.

The sheriff budgeted for the additional revenue, but he did not budget for a surge in costs that came with the contract, he admitted.

"The grocery bill is what got us quite a bit, and then our health services," he said.

Not all of the costs were attributed to federal inmates. A local inmate racked up much of the health services expense, Palmer said. But the federal inmates ran up a significant tab.

The curtailment of office hours is not the only cost-cutting measure the sheriff has undertaken to squeeze through the month of June.

"We've put an end to all spending," Palmer said. "We've put a stop to all reserves doing patrols."

Full-time deputies will continue their patrols, and Palmer emphasized that his office will continue to respond to emergencies and general calls for service.

The sheriff said he will work on a supplemental budget for next fiscal year so the additional costs from inmates will not jeopardize next year's budget.Budget law creates maze of costs, incomesCANYON CITY - So the Grant County Sheriff's Department failed to anticipate heightened costs to house federal prisoners.

A citizen might ask: Why can't the department simply take advantage of extra revenue generated from the federal prisoner contract to make up the difference?

It's not that simple, county budget managers caution.

In the private sector, an increase in revenue could offset an increase in costs. For example, a citizen who received a raise at work could use that raise to help pay off a new stereo system. In the world of public budgeting, however, the scenario becomes more convoluted. The hypothetical citizen (department head) might end up sharing their raise with a host of other entities (departments), all of whom rely on the frugality of the whole population (the county, in this case) to make the overall budget balance. Purchase of a new stereo system would not necessarily depend on a raise garnered by a particular individual (department head). Rather, it would represent a predicted expense, a cost built into the budget at least a year in advance by the department head and a six-member budget committee, which would then be approved by the full Grant County Court. The purchase would be predicated not on a particular department's ability to make money but on an overall picture of revenue weighed against expenses.

Sound complicated? It is.

Grant County's fiscal year (July 1, 2002-June 30, 2003) budget contains 99 income lines (next year the list grows to an even 100). A $3.77 million general fund, when expressed as a budget, undulates like jello. Separate ledgers for expenses and income become moving targets depending on the shifting winds of state funding, grant acquisitions and a realm of other factors.

As of June 5, for example, only 89 percent of expected revenues - $3.62 million - could be accounted for in the waning fiscal year budget. It's unlikely the county will raise the remaining $406,859 in June, officials acknowledge. Only about half of that margin is likely to materialize, thanks mostly to a Payment in Lieu of Taxes block payment of $210,000 which predictably arrives in the last month of the fiscal year.

So what does the county do about the remaining $200,000 shortfall? Ultimately, budget managers hope and pray that departments come up short on their spending. Actually, Reynolds explained, budget managers do a little more than "hope and pray." They predict spending patterns, relying on departments such as the tax assessor and parole and probation department to show reliable frugality. A $79,552 contingency fund helps buffer some unexpected costs, but that fund also tends to fluctuate like quicksand. This year, for example, a recent computer meltdown in the district attorney's office will saddle the contingency fund with costs of between $12,000 and $18,000, Reynolds estimated.

The contingency fund may end up helping the sheriff's department to keep its materials and services budget in balance. The irony of public budgeting is that a department can experience windfalls in some budget areas or "lines" (the sheriff has a healthy balance of $52,440.70 in his personal services budget), but those surpluses are moot unless the County Court approves budget transfers between lines. "Budget authority" refers to an individual budget line's limitations. The budget authority for the sheriff's materials and services has dwindled to a razor-thin $2,645. Hence, the efforts to save money by closing down the sheriff's office for two days a week.

"The one basic principle is we can't spend more than we've been authorized to spend," Reynolds explained.

Reynolds cautioned that "budget constraints and restrictions," the stated reason for the sheriff's office-hours reduction, should not imply that the sheriff's office was not granted the money in its budget. Rather, legal and policy impediments make it tough to rectify a budget overrun.

"Budget law is causing him to have to do that," Reynolds said.

Ultimately, county leaders face an urgency to maintain a "big-picture" perspective about departmental spending.

"It's our job to care about all of them," Reynolds said.

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