Drug enforcement focus of sheriff's budget wish list

Ross County Sheriff George Lavender presented his budget wish list to county commissioners on Monday, including hopes of adding two drug investigators.

Lavender’s overall budget request comes in about $647,000 over the current year’s appropriation but includes an estimated insurance increase of 10 percent. The Ross County commissioners said there will not be any increase in insurance, reducing the cost of the request.

The overall increase in the budget request includes an estimated 3 percent employee raise across the board, but Lavender said officials don’t know yet what the actual increase will be. Although the contract with staff expires at the end of this year, contract negotiations aren’t set to begin until spring.

Another increased cost — $73,508 — is from the inclusion in the budget of the two part-time school resource officers Lavender added earlier this year after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Lavender’s request for two drug investigators would cost $112,456 and allow him to dedicate two people strictly to fighting drugs in the county.

In late September, Lavender decided to pull one employee from the field to dedicate to drug investigations. So far, that deputy’s work has led to five search warrants, the discovery of four meth labs, 23 undercover drug buys and 11 arrests.

“I think, if I have two funded positions, we can make a difference with drugs in the county. ... Right now, we’re being reactive instead of proactive,” Lavender said.

While the U.S. 23 Major Crimes Task Force helps provide drug buy money, Lavender said, the lead agent part of it is stretched thin across five counties.

As a result, he said, his office needs to be doing more, which he said should help affect the numbers of thefts, burglaries and other crimes in the county.

Searches also can lead to seizures and money that gets returned to the county to use for things such as training and equipment.

In addition to the drug investigators, Lavender also hopes to have funding to bring the number of road patrol deputies back up by one.

Commissioners Doug Corcoran and Jim Caldwell both said there’s an obvious need for the positions, but whether they can approve them will depend on what the numbers look like as they examine the general fund budget.

The commissioners have been meeting with department heads this month and will begin gathering in mid-December to go line by line through requests, looking for places to pare. During those meetings, they also will determine what percentage of pay raise they can provide for employees.

County Auditor Tom Spetnagel said that, overall, revenue is looking solid for 2014, with an estimated 2 percent increase in sales tax revenue. Although the county lost local government funding, casino revenue helped replace that loss, he said.

“I think 2013 has been a good year in the county because departments have controlled their expenses,” Spetnagel said, adding that most departments are returning unspent appropriations. “Because of how this year went, I think we’re in good shape for next year.”

Final number crunching is ongoing and will be part of the mid-December budget talks.

Not included in the budget request was additional funding for dispatchers. A recent radio communication study paid for by the commissioners suggested a boost in staffing to have two dispatchers on at all times, rather than just three days a week, would be beneficial to improve some radio communication problems the county is experiencing.

“There seemed to be a big consensus that would be a big help,” Corcoran said.

However, he said it might be something officials talk more about a little down the line.

As for the corrections and civil side of business at the sheriff’s office, the requests were on par with last year, outside the additional request for anticipated raises and benefit increases. Although down four people at the jail, Lavender said all positions are funded and just need to be filled.

Lavender is expecting a small boost in jail revenue because, during the summer, Pike County law enforcement began sending inmates to the Ross County Jail again. Lavender said officials have committed five beds for Pike County inmates and will provide more when the population allows.

Lavender and the commissioners talked briefly about a need to expand the jail to increase revenue — especially as the local inmate population rises — but they do not see that as a project for 2014.

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