Sheriff’s department concerned about budget crunch

Officials from the Marion County Sheriff’s Department say they are concerned that a $10 million gap in this year’s budget will hurt their ability to pay critical bills, such as hospital care for inmates and jail operations, over the next four months.

As the City-County Council begins hammering out the 2012 budget, discussions between Sheriff John Layton’s office and Mayor Greg Ballard’s administration are intensifying over how to address the department’s budgetary needs. The parties met on Monday to talk about the funding gap.

Republican leaders of the City-County Council insist the department, which receives 43 percent of the county’s funding, has room to find savings in its roughly $100 million budget. But officials from the sheriff’s department say they don’t know how they can cut any more without affecting basic services.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about jail beds and jail medical,” said Kevin Murray, an attorney for Layton, a Democrat who was elected last year. “The only way to do that is to cut the number of people who are incarcerated. There’s no question the situation is awful.”

The department’s primary duty is running the jail, but deputies also provide security at the City-County Building and serve arrest warrants.

There’s been tension over the scope of the office–and how much funding and manpower it needs–since Ballard in 2008 launched a restructuring that made the public safety director, rather than the sheriff, the top law enforcement officer.

The budget for the sheriff's department increased about 13 percent, to $105 million, last year. That’s when overdue payments to Wishard Memorial Hospital and Corrections Corporation of America, the private contractor that runs one of the county jails, came due.

To cover its costs this year, the department requested $113 million, an uptick driven by the increase in costs for inmate medical care at Wishard and a need for more jail beds at the jail run by Corrections Corporation of America.

Ballard’s administration and the council instead approved $103 million.

On top of that, the department had to foot new cost burdens, such as higher worker's compensation insurance expenses and contract-mandated salary increases.

Ben Hunter, a council Republican who leads the criminal justice committee, said the sheriff’s department will have to cut spending in other areas to close the $10 million gap.

Hunter, who leads Butler University’s police department, sees plenty of opportunities for both the sheriff and IMPD to operate more efficiently by combining functions such as training, fleet purchasing and human resources. He also questioned whether it was necessary for the sheriff’s department to purchase about 30 Dodge Chargers this year.

“We’re going to have to find efficiencies,” Hunter said. “That is what tax caps force you to do.”

Hunter said it’s realistic to winnow the $10 million gap to $2 million or $3 million and negotiate with vendors for flexibility on payments. Both Hunter and Chris Cotterill, Ballard’s chief of staff, said the city will not borrow money or raise taxes to make up the difference.

Sheriff’s officials say they have scoured for ways to find savings. For example, the department saved about $2.2 million by cutting 12 deputies from the main jail and changing the shift structure to reduce overtime costs, said Lt. Col. Louis Dezelan, who leads the department’s administration division.

The department opted for Dodge Chargers, he said, because they cost an average of $1,000 less than new Crown Victorias and get better gas mileage. The department also has purchased 17 used Crown Victorias from the Speedway Police Department—which produced a savings of about $265,000 compared with purchasing new vehicles.

The office also looked at savings in such areas as office supplies as fuel.

The biggest challenge, Dezlan said, is the cost associated with sending inmates to Wishard. Typically, the sheriff’s office gets stuck with the bill after IMPD officers send them there upon arrest.

In about 90 percent of cases, those arrestees are not admitted because they don’t need overnight care. Dezlan said a good number could be treated in-house, but deputies don’t get to decide that.

“A lot of it is totally out of our control,” Dezlan said.

The department is working with the city’s efficiency experts to address that problem.

Meanwhile, Cotterill said the city will look at a slew of options to find a way to help the department this year.

 “We’ll have an honest and frank dialogue about ideas for savings,” Cotterill said, “and work through it.”

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