By Tim Cox
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey is seeking an additional $890,000 -- a 42 percent increase -- for his 2006 budget.
County Auditor Mark Giesige said county officials would be "hard-pressed" to meet the sheriff's request.
Grey requests a total budget of $2.8 million, up from just under $2 million for this year. Additionally, county commissioners already had to give the office an additional $40,000 to wrap up this year's finances.
Grey said the additional money is needed for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, he said, is increasing the pay of his staff to bridge the gap between their current pay and what a wage study showed they should be earning. Grey said he also needs more money to house inmates at other jails, to add wireless connectivity to the department's cruisers and to update the cruiser fleet with six new cars.
In a two-page letter to commissioners Grey reiterated past statements that his office has borne the brunt of past budget cuts and that his staff has "taken one for the team" as a result of tight finances. "Now is the time to restore the office to the levels prior to the economic crisis," Grey wrote.
Giesige had recommended commissioners aim for 3.5 percent increases for county departments. That number allows for 3 percent pay raises and a little bit extra to deal with other increased costs.
A 3.5 percent increase would result in a $197,000 bump in revenue to the sheriff's office. Granting the full $890,000 requested increase would pinch the county's finances, Giesige said.
"I can't speak for the commissioners, but the county would be hard-pressed to come up with this kind of money," Giesige said of Grey's request.
Commissioners told Grey they would get back to him after they hold further discussions on the overall 2006 budget.
In his letter, Grey said a wage study conducted by Clemans-Nelson Associates shows his deputies will be earning 8.5 percent less than the firm recommended for 2004 after he grants the planned pay hike. Corrections officers will be 7.37 percent below their recommended pay and dispatchers will be 4.3 percent off the mark.
Grey said in talking with his staff, he found that wages were the key concern beyond a failed unionization effort last summer.
"Should we fail again to provide adequate pay for facing the dangers they face and protecting our citizens, there will be no incentive for them to stay," Grey wrote. "Not paying competitive wages causes us to lose experienced people and is not a good investment for our community."
The extra money also is needed to house inmates in neighboring jails. Beginning Jan. 1, Grey said he will no longer house female inmates. When the jail has a female inmate, it reduces overall bunk space for four prisoners.
"This has caused a burden on the staff and significantly affected our overcrowding dilemma," Grey said.
New vehicles and the equipment that goes with them also is needed, Grey said. The department needs six new cruisers and new light bars, consoles and decals on all eight existing vehicles.
"The equipment is not designed to last this long," Grey wrote. "It is time the sheriff's office be upgraded to today's standards."