Chatham sheriff requests 22 new staff for next fiscal year

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 2/7/20

PITTSBORO — A new responsibility, Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson said, carries with it a need for more personnel.

It’s budget season across all of Chatham County’s local governments, …

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Chatham sheriff requests 22 new staff for next fiscal year

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Posted

PITTSBORO — A new responsibility, Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson said, carries with it a need for more personnel.

It’s budget season across all of Chatham County’s local governments, and with it comes requests from all municipal departments for more employees, resources and/or programs.

The Chatham County Board of Commissioners heard requests from county departments at its budget retreat late last month, and the request from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office was by far the largest: 22 full-time employees and 2 part-time employees.

While the request was “not typical compared to prior years” for the sheriff’s office, according to Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne, the ask was also “a great example of a heads-up request.”

“It’s exactly what we want to see early on because it gives us an understanding of a department’s ability to develop a well-justified expansion request,” LaMontagne said. “The budget team will be able to work with the Sheriff’s staff to understand the problem they are trying to solve, examine the data and explore alternatives to reach the most cost-effective solution that will address Board of Commissioner goals and demonstrate fiscal responsibility.”

This is the nitty gritty of local government. Since public safety efforts take up 18 cents of every local tax dollar — the second highest total, behind 39 cents for education — the sheriff’s request is a good example of walking through the budget process.

The ask

Last year, the Sheriff’s Office, which currently employs around 160 people, took on Animal Resources from the Health Department. It’s a shift that, according to Roberson, added a lot to his department’s plate.

“I think everyone would agree that Animal Resources was under-staffed when we took it,” he said. “When we took it, we got no additional personnel. We’ve worked hard over the past year to improve the services that we give for animal services.”

Ten of the sought-after positions are for that section of the sheriff’s office, including a kennel manager and five animal caretakers/technicians. Roberson’s proposal would stagger the hirings as the new county Animal Shelter gets closer to completion, projected for early 2021. Citing an increased number of animals the department is handling and housing, the ask was a necessity in Roberson’s eyes.

“If we’re going to triple that space and we’re going to bring in more animals, we not only have to catch up what we have now,” he said, “but we’ve got to make sure we have enough people when the building opens.”

The department’s request also includes four patrol officers, two criminal investigators, two victims’ rights coordinators and a narcotics officer. Roberson said the department has asked for four additional patrol officers since 2009. He talked about the need for more people to cover an expansive county — the 707 square miles that is Chatham County — as well as having a law enforcement presence in the new neighborhoods that are sprouting up.

But even the four, he said, would just be a “Band Aid.”

“Right now I think we’re really running short on that,” he said. “The great thing is crime’s still low, but as we build more urban areas and we build houses closer and closer to each other...as long as people own those houses, we’re good, but when they start renting these houses, you’ll see crime change a little bit. That’s one of the indicators you want to look at: a lot of rental property closer together, crime tends to go up.”

As far as the other positions: the narcotics officer would provide extra support in working against the opioid crisis; the investigators would help the department work on cases and crimes that “are getting more complex,” Roberson said, like fraud in the tens of thousands of dollars range; and the victims’ rights coordinators would help the department comply with Marsy’s Law, a new state constitutional amendment which provides more guaranteed enforceable protections to crime victims. The sheriff’s office is seeking a government grant that would cover 80 percent of the cost of those positions, but require a 20 percent local match.

Lastly, Roberson is seeking two detention officers for direct supervision at the Chatham County Detention Center, along with a maintenance person and two part-time kitchen staff.

“With detention, when we built the building, it was built for direct supervision, which means there’s an officer in each block with the inmates,” he said. “We are not at the staffing level we can do that. We’re in this middle phase where we can do direct supervision in some blocks but not other blocks, which really makes it inefficient.”

Receiving the ask

Each department submitted heads-up requests to the County Manager’s Office through the county’s Collaborative Impact Teams (CIT) for early consideration. LaMontagne said these request serve as “an opportunity to identify problems or issues that they anticipate in the upcoming budget year and suggest solutions.”

For example, the Human Services CIT — which includes the Chatham Council on Aging, Department of Social Services and Parks and Recreation — requested staff, programs and equipment with a roughly estimated cost of $962,455. This included two social work supervisors for DSS, a parks manager for Parks and Recreation and transportation assistance for the COA. The sheriff’s office request fell under the Public Safety CIT, which also includes Emergency Management and Telecommunications.

At the budget retreat last month, the county manager’s office presented the heads-up request to the county commissioners. But while these asks do involve money and wants from departments, they’re not the county’s final budget request.

“Once the budget team receives the requests, they work with the departments to explore the justification and examine alternatives,” LaMontagne said. “One of the priorities of the budget team is to be good stewards of public funds. This means asking difficult questions, looking for less costly alternatives, exploring partnerships with outside agencies, re-prioritizing existing work or putting something on hold.”

When the final request comes out, it may appear as if some departments got their whole request while others didn’t. For example, the Chatham County Board of Education’s final budget request was granted in full by the commissioners. But LaMontagne said it wasn’t as simple as the schools ask and they receive.

“In reality, there were several working meetings between the two staffs to reach agreement about the request before it reaches the BOE or the BOC,” he said. “The budget team and their counterparts at CCS work together cooperatively throughout the year to identify needs and develop solutions.”

That’s what next. The county’s budget team will work with departments to gather more information and hear more justification about the request. LaMontagne said that all requests “must be considered and balanced.”

From now till vote

The full budget proposal will not be presented to the Chatham commissioners until May 4, nearly three months from the date of this article’s publication. As such, LaMontagne said, there’s no answer to whether or not the county will grant the sheriff’s office its full ask.

“But the recommendation we develop — not only for the Sheriff’s office but for all departments — will depend on a performance-based workload assessment and identification of key metrics,” he said.

Roberson said he believes the county budget crafters have “a very difficult job,” and that every department is vital.

“I don’t know if there’s one department in county government that has too much staff,” Roberson said. “I don’t think that any department is not in need of a staff. I’m not trying to say that they don’t need their staff. I just think that school systems is important. And I think public safety is important. Since everything else is important too, I think what the commissioners job is to prioritize themselves and to put into order of where they think the constituents want their tax money going.”

Citizens will also have the opportunity — and always have a chance — to have their say in what the county budget looks like. The commissioners hold multiple public hearings on the document and the draft budget goes to each public library after its initial proposal.

After all, as LaMontagne said, it is Chatham County residents’ money.

“Priorities, affordability and cost-effectiveness are major concerns,” he said. “And again, it can’t be over-stated: the value that guides the budget process is wise stewardship of public funds.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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