The Hall County Sheriff’s Office has been tightening its belt coming into the summer’s Hall County government budget process.
The county’s largest department — and arguably one of its most important — has trimmed about $1.2 million for the proposed budget presented to the public on Tuesday night.
Those cuts are still a small fraction of the sheriff’s office budget, which typically runs close to $30 million annually or more than a third of the county’s entire general budget.
Still, any cuts to the law enforcement agency tend to raise eyebrows about public safety.
That was the case for Flowery Branch resident Vicki Bentley, who immediately after Tuesday’s Hall County budget open house said she was a little concerned about those cuts and whether they would affect public safety.
“My concerns were for front-line emergency responders,” she said. “They are so valuable to the safety of the community.”
But sheriff’s officials say those cuts — which are largely going toward reductions in the jail in anticipation of reduced inmate population and in administrative costs through consolidation of some positions — were designed to trim the department without affecting the service level.
In an email statement to The Times, Chief Deputy Col. Tony Carter said, “All these efforts have been carefully planned for months and executed in a manner allowing us to eliminate 21 positions in (the fiscal year) 2013 budget without layoffs, and to make these cuts in a way that will not affect front line emergency response, jail security and, most importantly, officer safety.”
The positions cut were through attrition and none were front-line responders.
Although the Hall County sheriff is an elected position, the sheriff’s office budget is given oversight by the Hall County Board of Commissioners and the majority of funding for the agency comes through Hall County government’s general fund.
Since last summer’s painful budget process, when the county faced an $11.5 million budget deficit, staff leaders have been in discussions with all departments looking at ways to reduce costs and raise revenue.
County Administrator Randy Knighton said those conversations were particularly important when reaching out to Sheriff Steve Cronic and his staff.
“We have been conscious of establishing dialogue over six to eight months, ensuring there were open lines of communications with the sheriff’s office,” Knighton said.
Combining the costs of running the county jail and some court services, as well as patrol, investigation and administrative divisions, the sheriff’s office runs as Hall County’s most expensive agency in the general budget.
It also makes up the bulk of the county’s public safety budget, which also includes Emergency Medical Services and Animal Control.
Public safety accounts for about 47 percent of the county’s general fund budget.
Comparatively high public safety costs are the norm in local governments.
When forming the draft for next year’s budget, Knighton said, “We took a look at all departments and assessed a number of different factors in terms of overall budget. You want to make sure you’re fiscally sound in every area, but also that services are not compromised — and certainly that public safety is not compromised.”
Part of that process also, Knighton said, was looking at where cuts came from in previous years.
While cuts to the Parks and Leisure Services and the Community Service Center were severe compared to their previous overall budgets, the sheriff’s office reductions were fairly minor.
That said, the department did trim about $800,000 in operational costs, including six midlevel management positions, Carter points out.
Those strategic cuts continue.
“This year in preparation for what we knew would be another challenging year for taxpayers and public employees alike, we began freezing certain positions associated with the jail,” said Carter.
That change came through attrition and through the closing of one floor in the inmate housing tower.
In making the cuts, Carter said he’s optimistic there will be trade-off that could actually boost public safety.
“It is our hope that by making these cuts and by working closely with the county administration and commissioner’s office that the county can finally find a way to eliminate the employee furloughs and restore employee retirement benefits,” he said.
Hall County deputies, like all county employees, have been subject to monthly furloughs as a cost-cutting measure.
According to a sheriff’s office statement, furloughs leave fewer patrol officers in the field, which can lead to slower response times and less opportunity for active patrol.
Although the proposed staff budget keeps 12 furlough days in place, some members of the Hall County commission have indicated a desire to reduce furloughs.