COLUMBIANA COUNTY Judge blocks deputy layoffs
Residents can expect to wait for answers to their emergency calls.
LISBON -- Common Pleas Judge C. Ashley Pike has issued a restraining order barring Columbiana County Sheriff David L. Smith from laying off five of his 17 deputies to compensate for budget reductions.
But the judge's decision did not block the layoff of five part-time dispatchers at midnight Friday. Smith said that move will leave the sheriff's department with only one dispatcher per shift and will cause delays in taking residents' calls.
"It's not uncommon to get five calls at once; you get calls continuously," Smith said.
The judge issued the restraining order and then excused himself from the case, said Smith, who expects a visiting jurist to decide the merits of the case. The sheriff and the judge share the same funding source, the Columbiana County Commission.
Attorneys for the Columbus-based Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the deputies, filed for the court action last week.
The next step, the sheriff said, is a hearing on whether the order should become permanent, which the department intends to fight.
"I have X amount of dollars in payroll, and there's not much choice that I have," Smith said.
The court had not yet set a date for arguments in the case, he said.
Quite a burden
County citizens will feel the "severe" impact of the lost dispatchers, the sheriff said.
The five part-time dispatchers augmented the staff of five full-time employees so that 90 percent of the time two people were available to answer emergency calls.
The layoff puts "quite a burden" on the single dispatcher remaining each shift, Smith said.
Smith said citizens can expect more rings when they call for help.
"Columbiana is a big county," he said. "It's the 22nd largest county in Ohio with 115,000 people, and it's 13th largest out of 88 counties in the state in square miles."
The move to lay off deputies has its roots in the defeat last year of sales taxes. Collections expire this fall. Authority to levy another expiring sales tax is on the ballot in May.
County commissioners, to compensate for the revenue lost from the defeated tax and to cover the possibility that voters might reject the spring request, in December ordered a 20 percent reduction in appropriations for all Columbiana government departments.
Compounding the county's money troubles, sales tax revenue didn't meet expectations during last year's fourth quarter.
Smith pointed out that a number of major employers in the county have closed down factories in recent months, exacerbating the impact of generally flagging county economy.
Smith's 2005 budget request was for $2.7 million, but he'll receive $2.17 million -- $270,000 less than his allocation for 2004.
Things could get worse.
Smith said that the judges could prevail in blocking budget reductions for their operations, which would force the commissioners to turn to other departments to make up the difference. What's more, the commissioners did not include a "line item" for unemployment compensation, he said, and he expects laid-off dispatchers to apply.
And there's no provision for overtime, he said. "If I get a murder tonight, I might have to call in two or three deputies."
The sheriff said he didn't know what he'd do if the court makes the injunction against the layoffs permanent.
"I have mixed emotions," Smith said. "I'm happy for deputies, and we need them out on the road. On the other hand, the commissioners aren't giving me any more money. I had no choice about the layoffs ... I'm still kind of in a jam with the payroll."
In addition to Smith, his deputy and the five remaining dispatchers, the full-time staff includes two lieutenants, seven sergeants and 17 patrol officers.
"If worse comes to worst," he said, "detectives may have to be rolled out as uniformed deputies."
Columbiana residents needing assistance will encounter major changes in their dealings with the sheriff's department if Smith wins his attempt to proceed with the layoffs.
Unless there are injuries, Smith said, individuals who smack a deer or crunch into another car will have to make their way to the department to file a report to turn into insurance companies.
For property crimes such as burglaries, victims will have to come to the sheriff's office to make a report unless it's a break-in in progress, Smith said.
"I don't know what will occur. Obviously some services will have to end. But I'm not going to endanger a deputy's safety or a citizen's safety," he said.
A second-term sheriff with 26 years of law enforcement experience, Smith said that as difficult as the current financial circumstances are, they aren't the worst he's seen in his career.
"It's not a pleasant experience," he said. "But it's something that's not uncommon, unfortunately. We have to take it step by step and try to ensure public safety. It's hard to generate sympathy in Columbiana County because every private entity is struggling, too."