Sheriff says more staff, or ‘complete restructuring,’ is needed

Two big question marks lingering in this annual season of bottom-line budget juggling — a partisan stalemate in Richmond, and the county’s impending move from its small local jail to a large regional facility — are worrying Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie C. Smith.

“I can’t get answers, and therefore I can’t give Mr. [County Administrator John] McCarthy answers, and he can’t give the board [of supervisors] answers,” Smith said Tuesday. “And it’s frustrating because I’m responsible for keeping this department going, and not knowing how many people you’re going to have, and how many you’re going to lose . . .”

McCarthy has drafted a fiscal-year 2015 budget that accounts for a loss of nine RCSO sworn officers — jailers, mostly, since Rappahannock’s prisoners will be sent to the new Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail in Front Royal starting July 1. That would leave four positions to deal with prisoner transport. (Smith says that of RCSO’s 26 sworn officers, 13 are patrol deputies and 13 are officers who divide their time between jail and dispatching duties.)

Smith’s version of the budget would keep at least six officers for non-patrol duties, which includes prisoner transport, dispatching and court security.

“The bottom line is, I cannot lose nine people,” Smith said.

The larger bottom line is that, while the first public airing of the county’s proposed $21.99 million 2015 budget is 7 p.m. this Monday (April 28) in the high school auditorium, getting to a final bottom line — an adopted budget — is likely to take as long this year as it’s ever taken. (Tentatively, the supervisors plan to adopt a budget at their regular monthly meeting on June 2.)

This year’s process is further complicated by the fact that McCarthy has proposed a 4-cent increase in the property tax rate, to 69 cents per $100 of valuation, to pay for the county’s mandated general property reassessment in 2015 (1 cent); other costs rising in 2014 that include 2-percent salary increases and insurance and state pension rate hikes (1 cent); and, mostly (2 cents), an increase to the general surplus fund in anticipation of paying, in 2016, the county’s share of regional jail debt and operations costs. The increase comes after a 4-cent increase in the tax rate last year, one driven primarily by social services costs that have risen sharply over the last three years.

McCarthy’s memo to the supervisors on the fiscal issues raised by the jail and the sheriff’s office transition is reproduced here.

Smith, who was not available to comment on last week’s story, also said Tuesday that the budget story in the April 17 Rappahannock News mischaracterized the number of sworn officers (in proportion to the county’s population).

She said the comparisons based on 2012 Virginia State Police crime statistics — which found Rappahannock, pop. 7,456, with the highest proportion of sworn officers at 1 for every 288 citizens — should have accounted for the fact that the neighboring jurisdictions employ civilians, primarily as dispatch and support personnel, while her department only employs one civilian and otherwise all dispatchers are sworn officers. (This is primarily so they can switch between dispatching and jail duties, since the latter requires officers be sworn.)

If you count sworn officers and civilians for law enforcement in Fauquier County (where the population is almost 10 times that of Rappahannock), the ratio of officers to citizens published in last week’s article drops from 1-to-478 to 1-to-418. In Culpeper County, which operates a local jail significantly larger than Rappahannock’s, including civilians would drop the ratio from 1-to-418 to 1-to-354, in Madison County from 1:694 to 1:600.

Counting the civilians employed in neighboring jurisdictions for posts that RCSO fills with sworn officers, however, Rappahannock’s ratio is still the lowest of its neighbors.

In Madison County’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget, the Sheriff’s Office funding is at about $1.8 million, for a county not quite twice the population of Rappahannock County. In Rappahannock, McCarthy’s draft 2015 budget allocates $1.5 million.

Madison does not operate a jail — as Rappahannock won’t in fiscal year 2015 — but its sheriff’s office funding does not include Madison’s separate emergency operations center (funded in 2015 at $819,834), where 911 operators dispatch calls for fire, rescue and law enforcement.

Sheriff Smith is adamant that losing nine officers would be too much — “The entire sheriff’s office would need complete restructuring otherwise,” she said — but says the biggest problem is the partisan battle over health-care issues in Richmond, which is holding up the state’s approval of a budget — which in turn is holding up the state Compensation Board’s decisions on what sort of jail-related staffing Rappahannock County can expect for its share in the RSW Regional Jail. (McCarthy, in his memo to the supervisors, said he has no written promise from the state of what to expect.)

“It’s just very frustrating,” Smith said.

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 544 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.