Sheriff offices and county commissions battle over budgets in lean times

Cumming — The sign in Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton's office reads "Spare Me the Drama." But it's a hot August afternoon, the subject is the budget and, what the heck, the sheriff is on a roll.

“With the budget they gave me, as far as I was concerned we were bankrupt on Jan. 1st,” Paxton said. “We were bankrupt before we answered our first call. We were bankrupt before we bought our first gallon of gas.”

In 159 counties across Georgia, every year county commissions and sheriff’s offices wrangle over the sheriff’s budget. In good economic times, the negotiations often take place, without public interest, behind the scenes, or, if they’re in public, in peaceful accord.

But, two years into this recession, with counties cutting their budgets, laying off and furloughing employees, and eliminating programs, the push and pull has, in many counties, turned into a battleground with political stakes on both sides.

The sheriffs' budgeting process is unlike any in state government. Commissioners hold the purse strings; but sheriffs -- who are elected and otherwise autonomous by state law – have their own levers of power. Commissioners facing declining revenue can’t chop the expenditures of a sheriff’s office unless the sheriff agrees.

In Forsyth County, Paxton took his case public. If the Forsyth County Commission didn’t give him another almost $2 million, he would reduce his force by 88 deputies. The commission caved. Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said later he didn’t feel like they had much choice.

“We’re getting calls from half the people screaming, ‘You’ve got to get that sheriff under control,” Laughinghouse said. “But he’s not under our control, according to the state Constitution. The other half are saying, ‘You’ve got to give him what he wants, our safety is at stake.’”

In metro counties that have separate county police departments, such as Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb, the stakes in the budget wrangles aren’t as high because the power base of sheriff isn’t as broad.

In counties with police forces, the sheriffs' chief duties are to provide court security and run and staff the county jail. But in more rural counties such as Forsyth, the sheriff is the law. Mess with the sheriff’s budget and a commission can be accused of going easy on crime.

“It’s one of those gray areas that probably can’t be fixed without a change in state law,” said Bud Sanders, a commissioner in Greene County east of metro Atlanta, where, over the last two years, the county commission and Sheriff Chris Houston have waged an epic, and expensive, battle.

J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said the vagueness of the law gives a sheriff leverage in the negotiations: “The commission is required to fund the sheriff’s office in a manner that the sheriff can fulfill his oath.”

And those costs keep rising. Even in a more urban county such as Cobb, where the commission and school board cut budgets and laid off teachers this year, the budget of the sheriff’s office increased from $64 million to $66 million. Likely there will be another increase next year, to pay for a jail expansion, said chief deputy Lynda Coker.

In Fulton County, the sheriff’s budget increased 2 percent. In Gwinnett, the sheriff’s budget increased from $66.3 million last year to $66.9 million this year, even as the county overall has cut its budget by about $380 million and eliminated about 300 jobs.

Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway requested another estimated $1.5 million, to hire 30 senior positions and buy home monitoring bracelets for released jail inmates, but the commission turned him down, said county spokesman Joe Sorenson: “He didn’t get everything he asked for.”

Forsyth County Sheriff Paxton’s budget increased, after the additional $2 million from the commission, from $31.6 million in 2009 to $34.6 million.

“I think it’s disgraceful that the sheriff had to ask for more money,” said Pamela Sisco, 64, who has lived in Forsyth 12 years. “He’s got enough money and too much power, and too many deputies. They crawl all over each other.”

She said she understands that the commission has limited power over the sheriff and the sheriff’s budget. “There’s something wrong with that, “she said. “That needs to be changed.”

Paxton said there are too many costs he can’t control.

“We can’t predict how many people are going to be arrested, and we can’t predict medical costs, which are huge,” he said, recalling an inmate who, a few years ago, required brain surgery that cost about $60,000.

Paxton also pays Hall County $40 a day per inmate to house about 150 inmates because his jail is full. Voters have three times rejected bond referendums to build a bigger jail, he said.

To save money, Paxton has eliminated overtime for deputies and he’s gone three years without buying new squad cars to replace his agency fleet, which means last year he spent $16,000 on maintenance for a squad car with a book value of $1,800.

Statewide, there are efforts to ease the tension. Clint Mueller, legislative director for the Association of County Commissioners, said his organization has met with members of the sheriffs' association to come up with a mediation panel.

“Even when we disagree, the last thing we want is to get into litigations and the taxpayers are paying lawyers on both sides,”  Mueller said.

In Greene County, that’s exactly what’s happened. There, the commission tried to create a special tax district so taxpayers could see, itemized on their tax bills, how much it cost to run the sheriff’s office compared to other county costs. The idea was the sheriff would be subjected to taxpayer scrutiny he would otherwise be shielded from, and cut his budget.

But the case went to the Georgia Supreme Court and Sheriff Houston sued and won. The Greene County Commission then convinced the Georgia attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Houston for his expenditures and other matters.

Sheriff Houston said he’s done nothing wrong, he’s tried to keep his budget as low as possible and, he noted, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed that the county commission had overstepped its bounds. He called his investigation on criminal allegations “politically motivated and time will reveal that soon enough.”

Greene County Commissioner Sanders said all the litigation, politics and the investigation have, nonetheless, done their job and forced the sheriff to reduce his budget from $3.9 million to $3.2 million.

But the budget row was  not cheap. Greene County paid the $65,000 legal fees of both the commission and the sheriff’s office in the case. Sanders claims it was worth it. “The way I look at it, it’s a hell of a legitimate investment. I’ll spend $65,000 every day to save 10 times that much [on the sheriff’s budget]. If we hadn’t fought him, I guarantee you that budget reduction would have never happened.”