Commissioners cautious about strings attached to federal grants

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A federal grant that would pay a new sheriff's deputy for the first three years in a four-year contract is being approached cautiously by Marshall County commissioners on the Law Enforcement Committee.

The hesitation is out of a concern that after three years, the county would bear the entire cost and would feel obliged to maintain the same level of staffing thereafter when it's unclear what county finances will be like at that time.

A civil service system of personnel policies for sheriff's employees was among the concerns, but discussion during the committee's meeting last Thursday also acknowledged the fact that other employees will leave the department for various reasons.

Katie Burk, the officer explaining grants and stimulus money available to Sheriff Les Helton's department, contends that after four years there's no federal obligation to continue a deputy hired with the grant. She explains the total cost for a new deputy is nearly $42,500 annually, including full family health insurance and other benefits.

While the Community Oriented Policing System (COPS) Grant from the U.S. Department of Justice does not pay for a patrol car, gas, pay raises and incidental costs, it subsidizes one deputy's costs for 36 months. The grant contract would obligate the county to assume all costs after those three years, but the requirement is for 12 months.

"In another four years, I'd like to have another man," Chief Deputy Billy Lamb told the Law Enforcement committee during its meeting in the sheriff's training room next to the county jail.

Commissioner Jimmy Wolaver asked if the sheriff wouldn't be able to lay off an employee and Commissioner Scottie Poarch said he didn't think so. His concern appeared to be the civil service protections for employees.

Commissioner Billy Spivey asked a question and took a position.

"If it weren't for this grant, would you be hiring another officer?" Spivey said. "If you need one, now's the time, but if you don't, we ought not do it."

Commissioner Mickey King asked about "the snowball effect" of other growing costs for vehicles.

Commissioner Wilford "Spider" Wentzel asked,"If you've got to have one in four years, why not start now?"

Commissioner E.W. Hill moved to recommend applying for the grant to the Budget Committee so the proposal might be considered by the County Commission.

Burk reported the application deadline is approaching and Commissioner Seth Warf said he wanted time to think about it, explaining, "I don't know if the money is going to be there" after the six months.

Warf abstained from voting, but all other committee members voted yes..

Spivey said he voted for the grant application, but said, "I still have questions in my mind. I don't want to be a stumbling block at this point."

Commissioner Linda Williams-Lee chairs the committee and also administers grants for the county school system.

"I'm in the same situation," Williams-Lee said. "I have 18 days to get information to the state and then we had to meet quickly."

A special called meeting of the County Commission has been called for Monday. COPS Grant applications are due Tuesday. Burk said that while some had suggested she file an application and withdraw it if the commission doesn't authorize the grant application, she would wait until the commission voted for it and then submit the application.

Remarkably, next Monday's special meeting was set for another reason. It's to apply for federal stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

"We didn't know about the COPS Grant," King said of when the agenda was set for the special meeting on Monday, "but I'm sure we can get it on the agenda."

Sheriff Helton said Lamb and others in the department had been "working all day... trying to get more money" from the federal government for the department.

Several avenues were found

Lewisburg Police Chief Chuck Forbis has found a total of $47,700 is available with $33,000 going to city police and $14,700 going to the sheriff's department, Burk said. Furthermore, Forbis has declined the opportunity to charge a 10 percent administrative fee, so all the funds will go for law enforcement expenses.

Burk explained to get the funds, local law enforcement agencies must make purchases and then submit bills for reimbursement from the ARRA. The sheriff's department plans to buy equipment with the money.

Worn out bullet magazines and bullet proof vests would be replaced with the grant money from the stimulus package through the Justice Department, Lamb and Burk said.