By Tim Cox
The Mercer County Sheriff's Office is facing a year-end budget crunch and will need a bailout from county commissioners to meet payroll and to purchase some badly needed cruisers.
Based on current finances, Sheriff Jeff Grey told commissioners he will need an additional $100,000 for personnel costs and a few thousand more to lease several new fully outfitted cruisers. About $76,000 of the money can be transferred from existing sheriff's department funds that come from grants, conceal-and-carry gun permit fees and other administrative revenue outside of tax dollars.
Commissioners said they would work to find the remaining $26,000-$28,000, but noted they also are dealing with tight finances. The county general fund's contingency fund has just 18 cents remaining, Commissioner Jim Zehringer pointed out.
Grey said the anticipated budget shortfall is a sign of a stagnant -- and in some cases shrinking -- budget the department has dealt with for years. Budget spreadsheets show the department is spending less on supplies, equipment and staff training than it did in 1998.
The sheriff's office has an annual budget of about $2 million, which includes operation of the jail and the county's 911 central dispatch. "We've been cutting ever since I've been sheriff," Grey told commissioners. "Everything that is not tied to salaries has went down."
As an example, Grey cited the sheriff's department's budget line item for supplies, which includes fuel for cruisers and other necessities. The office has $42,000 budgeted for this year but spent more than $45,000 in 1998, and gas prices are far higher today than back then.
Fuel prices have risen so much recently, he said, that the office is on track to spend slightly more on fuel this year than in 2004, even though it will log an estimated 35,000 fewer road miles this year.
"That's a cut in service, a cut in protection to the community," Grey said of his decision to order cruisers parked for a portion of every hour when possible to conserve fuel and save money.
The office is also handling more calls than it did several years ago, Grey said.
Even if commissioners come up with the money Grey needs, the sheriff's office doesn't have the money in its budget to continue the annual $43,000 lease payments for the five cruisers. Grey is hoping to put up to eight new cruisers on the road in the near future to replace some vehicles that are 10 years old.
The Consumer Price Index has risen 17 percent since 2000, Grey noted, hoping county officials will consider his budget situation as they begin preparations on next year's spending plan.