Mahoning County has faced financial shortfalls before, but those have only been preliminaries leading up to the 2005 battle of the budget.
Already, Sheriff Randall Wellington is excusing shoddy work on the booking desk -- a career felon got a get-out-of-jail-free card last week -- on being short-staffed, and as far as short-staffing goes, the sheriff hasn't seen anything yet.
Commissioners shaved the sheriff's budget requests from $16.9 to $7.5 million, a difference of $9.4 million. That's a figure that almost defies explanation.
Anthony Traficanti, chairman of the board of county commissioners and interim county administrator, points out that Sheriff Randall Wellington requested almost $2 million more for 2005 than he spent in 2004, even though department heads had been asked to submit bare-bones budgets. The sheriff's budget is by far the largest single item in the general fund budget -- three times larger than the next in line, juvenile court.
Sheriff takes a hit
Still, the sheriff was allocated only 40 percent of what he requested for general operations and 63 percent of what was submitted for jail medical expenses.
The commissioners had $54 million in budget requests and $39.9 million to allocate. They had to trim $14.1 million, or about 26 percent of the total.
Two thirds of that $14.1 million came from the sheriff's department. Looked at another way, the sheriff absorbed $9.4 million in cuts while all the other departments combined had to absorb only $4.7 million.
Taxpayers tend to think of the sheriff's department as the county's police department, and most sheriff's departments function as such, to varying degrees. But the sheriff is only mandated to operate the jail, provide service of court papers and provide security for the courts.
If Wellington were to begin an orderly trimming of staff to minimum levels now, it would be a challenge to complete the remaining 10 months of the year without running out of money.
But before the jail has to close or courtrooms are left without security, look for the courthouse and other county buildings to get grubby.
The facilities and maintenance staff is being cut from 22 to 12. The history of the maintenance department shows that those who believe the county has done nothing to economize haven't been paying attention.
Richard Malagisi, facilities manager, says the county once had a maintenance staff of 40. It was at 27 in 1999, the last time there were heavy layoffs, and coming out of that crisis, Malagisi was allowed to call back just 22.
While there is no question that there are economies to be made in county operations. There is no reason to believe that Mahoning County can function in anything approaching a normal manner without restoring the half-percent sales tax that voters refused to renew in 2004 and which expired on Dec. 31.
Traficanti and Commissioners David Ludt and John McNally IV, as well as the county's other elected officials, are going to have to convince voters of that when restoration of the tax appears on the May 3 primary ballot.
They've got a story to tell, but at least some voters have historically been unwilling to listen.