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Wednesday, 16 September 2009 15:55

Sheriff, Swain point fingers over budget shortfall

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The on-going tension between Swain County commissioners and the sheriff has surfaced yet again, this time over the root cause of the county’s $1 million budget shortfall.

“If it hadn’t been for the expenditures of the sheriff’s office we would have been pretty much been alright,” County Manager Kevin King said.

King cited excessive overtime and several additional positions added to the sheriff’s office over the past year as driving up costs by several hundred thousand dollars over above the budgeted amount.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran said the county is using his department as a scapegoat.

“It looks to me like the budget shortfall is poor management on the part of county administration,” Cochran said. “They need to look in the mirror and see where the problem lies. They are the watchdogs of the budget.”

The county spent $160,000 last year on overtime for jailers and deputies. Overtime was racked up every pay period thanks to a shift schedule that gave jailers and deputies 20 hours overtime each two-week pay period. They worked 60 hours one week and 24 the next, with overtime paid out whenever they went over 40 hours in a seven-day period.

King said the problem has now been solved by switching the overtime rules effective this month. Overtime pay now kicks in only after deputies and jailers accrue 86 hours over a two-week pay period. The alternative system for paying — or rather not paying — overtime is allowed under Department of Labor rules for law enforcement workers who often have longer shifts clustered together for several days in a row but then get several days off, King said.

King said he met with jailers and deputies to explain the new method for calculating their pay. He said they don’t like the new arrangement.

King said Cochran used the overtime formula to pay his people more, an end run in essence around salaries he thought were too low for his workers, King said.

Cochran admits without the regular overtime “Their paychecks are going to go down drastically.”

“They just barely make enough money to live anyway. They were dependent on some of this overtime to help them survive,” Cochran said. Some are getting second jobs, dropping health insurance coverage and even seeking food stamps and Medicaid.

But Cochran said eking out more pay for his people wasn’t his motive when implementing the schedule. He said it was part of a move from 8-hour to 12-hour shifts, which are more common in law enforcement, and to rotate who works weekend instead of it always being the same people.

“When we implemented this I wasn’t aware they had to pay the overtime like they say they had to,” Cochran said. “When you are looking for someone to blame they will pick someone to blame.”

King said overtime was only part of the budget problems emanating from the sheriff’s office. Revenue at the jail fell short of expectations. County leaders opened a big a new jail last year that was overbuilt in hopes of housing more prisoners from out of the county for a nightly fee. But the number of inmates housed from outside the county declined, however, shattering the county’s hopes of subsidizing the overly large debt payments.

King has blamed Cochran, but Cochran said it is out of his control. The jail project was started before Cochran took office. The county undertook an oversized jail despite neighboring counties that once regularly housed inmates in Swain building new jails of their own and decreasing the need to rent out bed space.

In addition, the county added several new positions to the sheriff’s office and jail over the past year. The extra jailers were needed to man the larger facility, or so everyone thought.

“The county commissioners approved every bit of this,” Cochran said. “They had to approve all the expenditures for the jail. They are the watchdogs of the budget. I don’t have the check book up here to write checks.”

King said the county should have cut some of the extra jailers when it became clear the jail wasn’t filling up and the extra jailers weren’t needed. Instead of cutting the positions, the extra jailers were made deputies and kept on the payroll.

“That was probably a mistake,” King said. “We didn’t have the money to keep them.”

But King said the commissioners were sensitive to accusations from the public that they weren’t treating Cochran fairly.

“They didn’t want to be perceived as doing anything political,” King said. King said they had been repeatedly chastised for having an ulterior motive whenever they turned down Cochran’s budget requests.

“People need to have good public safety, but that is not the issue. The issue is there is not the money to do it,” King said.

Cochran currently has a lawsuit pending against the county alleging that commissioners cut his pay as political retribution when he took office three years ago. Prior to Cochran’s term, the sheriff was paid a lump sum to feed inmates in the jail and could keep the surplus, as opposed to the county just paying the actual cost of the food.

When the practice was curtailed as Cochran went into office he claimed the effective pay cut was political retribution since he was a Republican and the commissioners are Democrats. The tensions have been brewing ever since.

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