- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Charles County Commissioner Debra M. Davis asked Sheriff Rex Coffey if he’d accept an audit of his department during the presentation of his department’s fiscal 2014 budget request Tuesday.
Coffey’s total request of $81.7 million represents an 18 percent increase over the current $69 million budget for the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, which itself comprises one-fifth of the total county budget.
“This is a huge percentage of our county budget, and I think we owe it to our taxpayers to do a little more delving into it,” Davis (D) said, before asking Coffey (D) if he would be “willing to comply with an external audit?”
“We’ll go along with an audit, absolutely,” Coffey said. “I think, Commissioner Davis, what you’re missing here, we realize the important dollar amount to the county budget as well, but there is not a price that you could put on law enforcement. We all know law enforcement is expensive. It just comes with the territory.”
Of the $12.6 million budget increase in Coffey’s request, $11.9 million would come from the general fund and the remaining $707,500 would be in the form of lease purchases.
About $3.1 million of the general fund increase is in mandated costs, including nearly $2.8 million in raises to pay and benefits.
The remaining $8.8 million would pay for an array of agency priorities, including $2.1 million in additional salary raises, holiday pay and overtime.
The department also is asking for 125 new police vehicles at a price tag of $3.5 million, or $27,800 per vehicle.
Coffey also requested funding to hire 10 new deputies and 10 new correctional officers, with respective first-year costs of $935,000 and $786,000.
The remaining priorities include $958,600 in deferred technology upgrades at the sheriff’s office and county jail, $300,000 in fitness incentives for officers and $217,500 to match grant funding.
The lease purchase requests include $419,500 for upgrades to 150 in-car camera systems, $193,000 to pay for 45 replacement mobile data terminals, a new $35,000 fingerprinting system and $60,000 for 300 new sirens and faceplates.
“There’s no fluff in that,” Coffey said. “It’s all things that we need to make us efficient and run our agency effectively and also to not negatively impact morale.”
Davis said she would support the budget request, “but I believe that we owe it to our citizens to have an open book on how this much of their money is being spent. This is a huge portion of our county budget.”
“I agree with that, but I think I’ll just leave you with this: There are no secrets in the sheriff’s office, so we are open to any kind of looking into us that you feel is necessary,” Coffey said. “Only thing I’ll say is be careful what you ask for. You might find out that we’re understaffed, we’re underbudgeted. Unchecked growth is going on in this county, more roads to cover, more businesses to cover. Our constitutional duties have increased threefold.”
“I will assure you, if it came back like that, we would enter into some long-term program to get you up to par,” Davis said.
“Outstanding,” Coffey said.
The sheriff’s department also asked that $240,000 to replace the video recording systems at the county jail and its annex be added to the requested fiscal 2015 capital improvement plan, but Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said the funding could be considered for the fiscal 2014 CIP because it hasn’t been finalized.
Commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) cited the county’s tight purse strings before asking Coffey how he determined that he needed another 10 deputies.
Coffey pointed out that, despite the county’s rapid growth, his department has increased its force by only 12 officers since he was elected in 2006 — six in 2007 and another six in 2008 — and nine of them were assigned as school resource officers.
“We’re going into the fifth year of not getting new officers, and all you have to do is drive around this county to see the growth that’s occurring,” Coffey said.
The sheriff said that the county committed years ago, prior to his election, to have one sheriff’s officer for every 500 residents. Given that the county has 291 sheriff’s officers and an estimated 2012 population of nearly 150,600, the ratio currently sits at roughly one officer for every 517 residents.
Adding 10 officers to that total brings the ratio down to one officer for every 500 residents.
Collins indicated a preference to study the issue but was wary of committing the money just yet.
“I’m certainly inclined to really look at and explore the feasibility of addressing that, but I hope you can also appreciate that this is a tremendous increase in the budget,” Collins said.
Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said the county has discussed implementing a “global approach” to security at all of its buildings and perhaps replacing the school resource officers “with more of a court security-type of officer.”
“It is a big increase, and there’s always room for working through things, but I do think it’s essential that we recognize the importance of public safety in this county,” she added.