Sheriff Matt Gentry sat down with Cullman County commissioners Tuesday to outline the growing demands on deputies and the need for additional funding.
Among the items addressed by Gentry, are calls from the community increasing by 20,000 in the last four years, rising mental health issues requiring the attention of deputies, and a burgeoning population of inmates at the Cullman County Detention Center.
For 2018, the Sheriff’s Office received $10.98 million in funding — slightly more than half of the commission’s $21.5 million total general fund budget. The increases Gentry is seeking would require an additional $1.5 million contribution from the county in the coming fiscal year, and potentially more in succeeding years, if the Sheriff’s Office institutes a proposed, staggered 8 percent pay raise for deputies.
County officials, while sympathetic to Gentry and Chief Deputy Brett Holmes, indicated the money is not available without cutting other services provided to residents.
At first glance, there is some legitimacy to Gentry’s request, and, hopefully, the commission will give it serious consideration. When it comes to protecting the county’s residents, there is likely room for financial belt-tightening and compromise on both sides of the funding request.
Holmes said the budget request is out of concern for law enforcement meeting the demands of the community and to avoid liabilities that could arise from understaffing. That concern is paramount in dealing with mental health cases and the detention center’s population.
The case presented by the Sheriff’s Office is troubling across Alabama. Law enforcement officials are reporting increased contact with residents who have severe mental health issues. The use of drugs and the subsequently related crimes — theft, burglary, domestic violence — increases the jail population, even if some of those inmates are there for limited terms.
Cullman County and other communities across Alabama are being challenged in court over how bonds are set, but no matter where that verdict falls, law enforcement has an obligation to apprehend those who break laws. Law-abiding citizens demand that drug dealers, thieves and violent people go to jail in the hope that the community will be safer.
And, it’s no secret law enforcement personnel deserve higher pay for the dangers and stress they face each day. However, 8 percent is a significant jump, even if it’s staggered.
County commissioners have not denied the sheriff’s budget increase, but the early indications from the meeting look slim.
Outside of law enforcement, county residents have long wanted more road maintenance, a factor that is a top priority at election time. It is unlikely any cuts will be made in this area, but all departments need to be reviewed line-by-line during the budget process. If operations are lean across the board, expecting to move much money around is unlikely.
With the state increasingly sending more inmates to county detention centers as a quick-fix to overcrowded prisons and the state and federal governments’ role in leaving mental health funding stagnant for years, local communities are facing overwhelming challenges in finding the resources to handle the situation. Local leaders are vigorously pursuing solutions to mental health issues, but funding is the slow side of the their efforts.
There are no easy solutions when it comes to governmental budgeting, even during a period with a generally healthy economy.
However, we encourage the county commission to review the upcoming budget to see if there are additional dollars that can be re-appropriated from other areas to address some of the sheriff’s needs in the upcoming fiscal year and those that follow – public safety is a high priority among residents.