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Sheriff seeking additional funds

Nov. 09, 2012 @ 12:07 AM

IRONTON -- Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless told county commissioners Thursday he was "at a breaking point" and was in dire need of additional funds to pay for gasoline for patrol cruisers to respond to calls from the public and for food and medicine for prisoners at an overcrowded jail.

"The cost to fight crime, care for inmates and keeping our streets safe is ever increasing, but we have managed to do this with a minimal staff, outdated equipment, cruisers with between 100,000 and 340,000 miles on them as well as deputy uniforms given to us by other sheriff's offices and used jail mattresses and used inmate uniforms that I have begged for from other jails," Lawless said during a Lawrence County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Lawless said he has scraped by the last few years with a minimal budget.

"We have been able to survive through attrition, but I am to a point where my staffing levels are below what it takes to provide safe care to the inmates that are housed in the Lawrence County Jail," he said. "The staffing levels for road deputies is also below what is required to properly provide service and protection to the citizens of Lawrence County."

A corrections officer and a dispatcher who resigned two months ago weren't replaced due to budget concerns, and two part-time employees were laid off to pay for gasoline costs for patrol cruisers, he said. The office is covering the cost of the two full-time employees with overtime, but can't keep that up much longer, he said.

Concerns about an even tighter budget next year "frankly scares the hell out of me because it may mean that I have to lay employees off," Lawless said.

Saying he can't run the jail with any fewer employees, he could be forced to close the jail, a move with far-reaching consequences including paying other county jails to hold prisoners and absorbing the cost to transport them to and from Lawrence County.

"Our staffing levels are at a 10-year low, and crime is on the rise," Lawless said.

A state jail inspector told him the county has too few corrections officers as it is, Lawless said. Laying off road patrol deputies is not an option at this time, he said.

Lawless said his office needs a full-time jail administrator, four additional corrections officers, four road patrol deputies, new cruisers, in-car computers and cameras, and an updated computer system, among other things.

Commissioner Bill Pratt said that while the sheriff's office will continue to be a top priority, "There's only so much we can do." He hopes the county's share of the sales tax money could cover some of the costs. However, that money isn't expected until Nov. 20.

County Auditor Jason Stephens said the county also will have to deal with increased health care costs which are expected to rise by 8 percent next year. The casino money promised to help cover the cost of drastic cuts in local government funds is between 10 to 15 percent less than anticipated, Stephens said.

Commissioner Les Boggs asked Stephens to determine if the county could borrow against next year's anticipated tax proceeds. Stephens said he would seek a prosecutor's opinion on the issue. "The county has never done it before, and it would cut into 2013 revenues," he said. "We'll look at options. It could come down to paying bills or keeping staff."

Stephens said that even if layoffs are initiated, the county will have to come up with the cost of unemployment since the county is self-insured.

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