By Jean A. Flanagan
Sheriff Bryan Ward and Prosecuting Attorney Lucas See agree that a paradox exists in both law enforcement and criminal prosecution – “the more we do our jobs the less resources we have to do our jobs.”
While we’ve been taught that criminals should go to jail, the more people the courts send to jail, the less money the county has to protect its citizens. “Everybody wants criminals in jail, but nobody wants to pay for it,” See said.
It costs the county $48.50 per day for every person sent to the Potomac Highlands Regional Jail. On an average month, it costs Hardy County approximately $40,000.
The fiscal year 2018 budget for the regional jail is $700,000. That’s almost as much as the budget for the entire Sheriff’s Department Law Enforcement account and nearly 50 percent of the county’s entire Public Safety expenses. It is 2.5 times the prosecuting attorney’s budget.
Sending people to jail also reduces the amount of funding available for jail diversion programs like Day Report and Drug Court. This year, like last year, the county contributed less than $18,000 for those programs.
[private] Percentage of the Whole
Last year, Hardy County allocated $729,015 or 10.5 percent of its total budget to law enforcement and $1,396,219 or 20.2 percent to public safety. Only 23 other counties in the state budgeted less.
Several surrounding counties place a much higher priority on law enforcement and public safety as indicated by the percentage of the total budget allocated to those areas.
County LE PS
Pendleton 4.5% 20.5%
Grant 7.08% 33.9%
Hardy 10.5% 20.2%
Hampshire 10.9% 21.9%
Mineral 13.3% 35.7%
PS= Public Safety
“I believe I am getting shortchanged and the public is getting shortchanged,” said Sheriff Bryan Ward. “The citizens of Hardy County have sent a message that drugs and Internet crimes are a concern. I can’t provide the best service because I’m not provided the resources I need.”
Ward requested an increase in his budget of more than $100,000. The increase was to hire two additional deputies and purchase three vehicles.
Ward said trying to stay on top of the drug situation in the county is a full time job. Two of his deputies have been reassigned to the Hardy County Drug Task Force.
The Hardy County Drug Task Force is comprised of law enforcement from the Sheriff’s Department and the Town of Moorefield Police Department.
“I have two less deputies on patrol because there are two on the drug task force,” Ward said. “I requested two deputies to replace them. They (the County Commission) have not taken my requests seriously.”
Follow the Money
It’s the responsibility of the Hardy County Commission to allocate money from tax revenue and other sources to the various county agencies.
According to County Clerk Gregg Ely, the process begins with an overview of the past year’s expenses and projected taxes for the four months remaining in the fiscal year.
“The expenses are usually close,” Ely said. “The revenue isn’t. The majority comes from taxes and it’s cyclical.”
Tax revenue comes in spurts. The first payments come in July, shortly after the tax bills are sent to property owners, but the money is not distributed to the county until August.
The second group comes in October, when the first-half bills are due. Between November and April, payments trickle in and in April, just before taxes are delinquent, the last group is received.
“Between April and July, we don’t have much coming in,” Ely said. “We have to cover July because we don’t get the next bump until August.”
Ely tries to have a $1.5 million carry-over from one year to the next to act as a cushion for those months when the tax revenue is lean.
Sheriff Ward, who is also the county tax collector, does not agree the county needs a $1.5 million “cushion.”
“I think the commission is being overly conservative at the expense of public service,” Ward said.
With an annual budget of $6.8 – $6.9 million, the $1.5 million carryover would fund the county for nearly three months without any money coming into the coffers.
The West Virginia State Auditor’s Office, in their publication “County Government Guidelines to the Budget Process warns about “cash flow problems” related to tax collection dates. “Without careful planning, the time frame associated with the collection and distribution of property taxes along with limited fund balances may result in cash flow problems for the entity,” the publication warns.
According to State Auditor John B. McCuskey, his office encourages both county and municipal governments to practice fiscal conservatism when budgeting taxpayers dollars.
“It’s not unusual for citizens to also ask why money is being held back and not spent on current budget expenses,” he said.
“When counties and municipalities carry more than 25 percent of their total budget allocation, our auditing division inquires why they have done this.
“However, money does not have to be spent in the fiscal year it is accumulated. That 25 percent mark only triggers an inquiry from us. It does not prohibit the counties and municipalities from holding back funds.”
Hardy County’s $1.5 million carryover falls just under that 25 percent mark.
The Annual March
One by one, department heads bring their budgets to the county commission. It’s up to the commissioners to approve or reject the individual departments’ budgets. That process is purely arbitrary. There is no particular formula or guidelines and in the past, the commissioners base their approval or disapproval on the budget of the previous year. “The commissioners compare last year’s expenses and the current year’s expenses with the amount requested,” Ely said.
There are no raises for county employees in the FY 2018 budget and most departments have not had raises for three years. Neither have they increased the number of personnel.
“We have the same number of people since I’ve been here,” said County Assessor Jim Wratchford, who has been in office more than 20 years.
“It’s not just the county. It’s all over. Even big corporations don’t hand out raises like they used to.”
There is money allocated to a few departments for “extra help.” The Sheriff’s Tax Department gets extra help during the busy tax season. The Prosecuting Attorney has allocated funds for extra help. Other departments apply and have received funding from state and federal sources for specific projects.
The Assessor’s Office and the County Clerk’s Office have received grants to digitize old records.
The County Commission’s budget includes payroll for themselves and their staff of one, but also includes the group insurance for all courthouse employees.
The County Commission’s budget also contains a line item entitled “Contributions-Transfers to Other Government Entities.” Funds to the Hardy County Rural Development Authority, the Potomac Valley Conservation District and Hardy County Emergency Ambulance Authority are included.
Last year there was $400,000 budgeted to that account.
Those funds do not include money given to community organizations for various requests. There is $28,000 in this year’s budget for requests such as the Wardensville Park and Pool, the Chamber of Commerce’s Reindeal Days and such. While the commission rarely says “no” to a request for funds, they often say “not now,” postponing a gift until more funds are available.
There are areas over which the County Commission has no control. Health insurance, utility costs, and for the past three years, ambulance service costs are some examples.
“We spent $932,750 between April 2013 and November last year when the suit was settled,” Ely said about county ambulance service. “We did get about $170,000 in grants, so the hit to the county was about $762,750.
From July 2016 to February we spent $114,000.”
Now that the Ambulance Fee has been reinstated and the HCEAA is billing for services, the commission is hoping the authority is on the road to self sufficiency.
Ely said utility costs have been pretty stable and group insurance, which is paid to the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) has increased about $20,000 over last year.
It seems counter productive that the budget process for the next fiscal year is done at a point in the current fiscal year when the tax receipts are at their lowest. There’s a natural tendency to be tight-fisted and conservative with spending.
In addition, the Legislature is still working on the state’s budget and recently there has been trepidation about tax cuts, increased expenses and general uncertainty.
The bottom line is the county, like the school board and like the state is still in a financial crunch. This doesn’t help the problem of too few dollars for public safety.