MAHONING COUNTY Tax loss will hit sheriff hard
The sheriff will lose federal inmates and discontinue rural road patrols.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County Sheriff Randall Wellington says loss of sales tax revenue will cost his department more than personnel.
It will probably pull the plug on the $3 million a year the county makes by holding federal inmates in the county jail.
Auditor George Tablack said that once that happens, the U.S. Marshals Service probably will be reluctant to bring back large groups of federal prisoners.
"The likelihood of us ever getting warm and fuzzy with them again, when we are constantly in a state of financial crisis, is going to be slim," Tablack said.
Federal inmates are held in the jail to await appearances in federal court, or to await transportation to a federal prison after they are sentenced. The federal government reimburses the county more than $65 per day, per inmate, for housing them.
The county generally keeps about 100 federal inmates in the jail at a time. Some also are kept in the former Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, on Youngstown's East Side.
But with voter defeat of a 0.5 percent county sales tax renewal Tuesday, county commissioners are forecasting massive budget cuts for 2005 and beyond. As the department with the highest general fund budget in the county, the sheriff's department stands to take the biggest hit.
"I'm sure it's going to result in layoffs," Wellington said. "There is just no way around it."
Loss of the sales tax revenue, which Tablack says is about $14 million a year, is expected to send the county into a state of fiscal emergency by the end of next year. That means the state will probably take over the county's finances.
In the meantime, commissioners are planning to impose hefty budget cuts next year to make up for the loss of sales tax revenue. The sheriff's department, whose annual budget is about $13 million a year, always takes the brunt of financial hits when cuts are made.
Tablack said the county's criminal justice system -- the sheriff's department and the courts -- accounts for about 70 percent of the county's general-fund expenditures. That's because the county has one of the highest crime rates in the nation.
"I can understand why people balk at that expense. It's kind of hard to feel sorry for criminals," Tablack said. "But that does not remove the county's responsibility to deal with the criminal element."
Wellington said he won't know the full brunt of the financial loss to his department until after he meets with commissioners and Tablack. He did say that he expects having to lay off at least 100 of his 240 full-time deputies.
By contract, if full-time deputies are laid off, the county cannot use auxiliary officers, who serve on a volunteer basis; or intermittent deputies, who work on a temporary basis and are paid less than full-time staff.
Wellington said such a heavy reduction in staff would force closure of the minimum-security jail on Commerce Street. Those inmates, about 100, would have to be moved across Fifth Avenue into the main jail, and federal inmates would have to be moved out to make room for county inmates. The federal inmates would be sent to other county jails.
Wellington said the layoffs would also force him to discontinue road patrols in unincorporated areas of the county that don't have their own police force, and to pull all his officers off specialty task forces.
"Everybody we have left would be needed to run the jail and service the courts. That's it," the sheriff said.
Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock said commissioners will have to focus only on funding services that are mandated by law. The problem, she said, is there is no clear-cut pattern to follow in determining which services are mandated.
Tablack said the loss of revenue also will cause the county's bond rating to change and will result in the county's having to pay a higher interest rate for its outstanding loans because it will be considered a higher risk.