Benton sheriff mulls how to whittle budget

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldNovember 11, 2012 

The Benton County Sheriff's Office is expected to take a budget hit as county leaders look to bridge a projected $2.7 million shortfall in the next biennium. But the county's top law enforcement official said he's hopeful the belt-tightening won't affect service levels.

"I'm working directly with the county administrator to figure out where we can safely make cuts without impacting services," Sheriff Steve Keane told the Herald. "We're looking at every line item in our budget."

Specific reductions haven't been finalized, but Keane said possible savings could include more staff cuts at the jail through attrition and delays in replacing patrol vehicles for deputies.

He estimated his office could need to trim more than $1 million.

Other departments also likely will feel the pinch. County leaders have said layoffs are a possibility, though County Administrator David Sparks said "some sort of attrition policy" where empty staff positions aren't filled could be a better option.

Commissioner Shon Small said county elected officials and staff are working together on the shortfall and he's optimistic they'll be able to reduce it "while maintaining services county residents expect us to provide."

He also said officials will "try all measures" to avoid layoffs.

"We're still digging into it right now," he said of the budget issue. "We're looking at expenditures, revenues, costs."

The sheriff's office is the biggest county department. It has a staff of more than 200 people, including more than 100 corrections officers and 50-plus deputies.

The sheriff's budget for the biennium ending this year is more than $50 million, including the jail and other custody costs.

The total county operating budget is around $110 million.

The county has about 700 employees total.

The shortfall largely is because of a projected recession-related dip in sales tax revenue in the next biennium, along with an expected drop in the amount of interest earned on county financial investments. The jail also is seeing fewer inmates brought in through contracts with outside agencies such as the state Department of Corrections.

Commissioner Jim Beaver said the shortfall isn't "insurmountable" and county leaders are making strides toward reducing it.

Beyond that, the county will need to continue evaluating how it does business and take better advantage of technology to streamline and cut costs, said Beaver, who acts as chairman of the three-member Board of County Commissioners.

"The broader picture is, how do we get to this other place before we face another $2.7 million (shortfall)?" he said. "How do we get smarter about how we're doing it?"

Commissioners talked briefly about the budget at a meeting last week and are expected to address it again later this month. A public hearing on the 2013-14 spending plan likely will be in mid-December.

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