In his first year as the Summit County sheriff, Steve Barry is confronting the effects of sharp reductions in his department’s budget over the past five years. Instead of 535 workers, the department now has 438.
To hire more deputies and civilian employees, Barry is proposing a 0.25 percentage point increase in the county sales tax, at 6.75 percent among the lowest in the state. If the County Council approves, the issue would appear on the spring ballot next year. It is not clear yet how much of the $19 million a year in new revenue would go to the sheriff.
Longstanding problems at the Summit County Jail are behind Barry’s request, as well as a desire to maintain specialized units, which suffer when deputies are pulled for jail duty. Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction are increasing pressure to pump up jail staffing to avoid suicides and confrontations among inmates and between inmates and deputies.
Barry’s request deserves close attention, given the safety issues in the jail and the community. But it also should trigger a re-examination of how law enforcement is provided across the county. The current approach is highly fragmented and inefficient, many small police departments piling up layers of administrative overhead.
If it is to meet its responsibilities, the county sheriff’s office clearly needs financial help, But the solution need not rely solely on taxpayers. Instead, with the support of Executive Russ Pry and the Summit County Council, the sheriff should aggressively urge smaller communities to contract with his office for police services.
Yes, the sheriff would have to hire more deputies to patrol. But there would be administrative savings, and more efficient use of the sheriff’s specialized units. Some of the cash flowing into the sheriff’s office from contracts with local governments would be available to cover jail expenses.
Without such reorganization, both Summit County voters and those within the county’s cities, villages and townships will likely face frequent requests for additional resources to shore up what is, overall, a patchwork system of law enforcement, one ill-suited to dealing with criminal activity that does not follow local political boundaries.