This week we visit two executive maneuvers, one stealthier than the other. The first instance, unveiled at the county executive’s state-of-the-county message last month, is Mike Hein’s goal of reducing or eliminating the sheriff’s road patrol, a periodic target for cost-cutters in days of yore. In the second case, the same executive is apparently attempting to distance himself from the raging controversy over gun control, though the fingerprints are evident to me. The two issues are not entirely unrelated.
The road patrol, under the direction of Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum, employees about 85 officers and staff with a projected (2013) budget of about $10 million, most of it paid by the county. Corrections — the jail — adds another $22 million to the sheriff’s annual budget, which also includes $6 million in annual bond payments for the construction of the $95-million edifice.
Jail operation is almost entirely dictated by and funded by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Not so the road patrol which despite a proud tradition dating to colonial days is, as they say in Washington these days, discretionary.
The sheriff’s patrol covers remote areas of the county, and some not so rural. What has been discussed in clandestine skull-sessions in the executive department is whether other police agencies now in place can do the job as well, better or cheaper.
The model for this cost-sharing initiative was launched a few years ago when the county contracted for town highway departments to plow and maintain county roads. Towns picked up some easy cash and the county saved some. According to the county exec, the more-for-less cooperative road maintenance system has worked out splendidly. Back at the county office building, bean counters were able to lay off a bunch of county highway workers, feeding the executive’s taxpayer-first proclivity.
The plan for cop conversion would be similar. Other police agencies would be asked to expand their patrol areas in exchange for county cash. I’m convinced that somewhere on a secret spreadsheet the cost to run a patrol car down a mile of (freshly paved) road has been carefully calculated.
A tried, true and almost predicable formula is being employed here. Hein has called on the county legislature to make a policy decision on the future of the road patrol. His office would be most willing to assist. It has the spreadsheets.
But Hein knows from experience — sale of the infirmary, solid-waste-flow control, privatizing mental health, etc. — that the contentious, divided and often lazy legislature is the last place from whence policy decisions on anything are likely to emerge. Ergo, the executive, most likely in the 2014 budget, will sally forth to save the day with a detailed plan.
Sheriff Van Blarcum, like any cop, would prefer to keep as many sworn officers as possible, maybe even add some. As a constitutional officer, independently elected, he broaches no meddling in the operation of his department.
“Don’t you guys report to [Deputy Executive] Bob Sudlow?” I asked the sheriff.
“We do not report to anyone in the executive department,” the sheriff replied, biting off every word. “Bob Sudlow is our liaison. We are independent of the executive in every respect except our budget.”