Waldo County panel curbs sheriff’s budget

Posted Dec. 22, 2008, at 8:56 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — When the Waldo County Budget Committee was looking for areas where it could cut the budget, members focused their gaze on the Sheriff’s Department.

The committee on Friday approved a $7.4 million budget for 2009 that keeps spending at a pace with last year’s budget package. County Commissioner John Hyk said it appeared that next year’s budget would be about the same as the year before, once all the cuts and revisions are tabulated.

“There’s not going to be any increase,” Hyk said Monday.

He said the budget provides for a 4 percent across-the-board pay raise for county employees, as well as other raises for sheriff’s deputies and county clerical workers mandated by recently signed labor agreements.

The committee found some of the money for the raises in Sheriff Scott Story’s patrol account. The committee cut $30,000 from Story’s gasoline request during Friday’s public hearing on the budget. The committee failed at an attempt to cut the additional patrol officer added to the budget during an earlier session.

Story said he asked for the additional deputy and fuel because the department will be patrolling more county territory in the years to come. For the past few years, the county had a work-sharing agreement with the Maine State Police. When cuts at the state level prompted the state police to pull back its coverage, Story was forced to fill the gap.

Under the sharing agreement, the county was divided into four zones with the sheriff’s patrol and state police dividing the workload evenly. Under the new plan, the county is divided into three zones, with deputies accountable for covering two of them.

Story said that even with another deputy, covering the expanded area would require more time and money. The county has 26 communities and each of the zones has at least eight towns. The distance from one end of a zone to the other can be greater than 75 miles in some cases.

“We were prepared to make do with what it was we had. I felt it was my duty to the citizens to at least have another officer to pick up the increased workload,” Story said Monday. “We already have longer response times, but make no mistake, we’re prepared to do the job with whatever resources we have. It just may not be as efficient or timely.”

Story said he hoped gasoline prices would remain low so he could probably stretch his fuel budget with $30,000 less. He said department vehicles travel about 30,000 miles annually. Of his original request of $185,000 for gas, tires and maintenance, the committee approved $120,000, he said.

Although Story also requested four new cruisers this year, the committee decided to purchase three at a cost of $70,500. All together, it will cost $1.1 million to operate the sheriff’s office next year and $2.8 million to operate the county jail.

Story noted changes could be in store for the jail within the coming year as the newly formed Board of Corrections is expected to examine the facility to see whether a “change in mission or downsizing” might be possible, he said. Story has a seat on the nine-member board.

Story said the staff-to-inmate ratio at the 40-year-old jail was not efficient for a full-service facility under current state regulations.

“It could be something much more efficient as some other role,” Story said. “It could be used as a re-entry or pre-release center or holding facility. A lot of options will be looked at.”

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