Sheriff Steve Barry is lobbying fellow leaders to join his push for a countywide sales tax increase to help support his woefully understaffed department and jail.
Barry, who is in his first year as sheriff, said the department is in “dire straits” and he needs to hire more deputies and civilian employees to stem his woes.
Problem is, he said, he has no money to fund the moves.
In response, Barry is seeking support for a 0.25 percent sales tax increase — which would raise about $19 million a year for the department and help ease the financial crunch.
The main funding problem, Barry said, is at the Summit County Jail in Akron, where already stressful working conditions have become dangerous for employees and inmates alike. The problem has arisen in the wake of budget cuts totaling 14 percent over the past five years and the corresponding slashing of about 100 employees.
A state jail inspection report issued earlier this year criticized the county for many deficiencies at the jail, concluding inmates are not having sufficient recreation time and there not being enough deputies assigned to the jail.
Staffing at the sheriff’s office further came to light earlier this year when the department was hammered with negative publicity from real estate agents and homebuyers who complained about sales being delayed because foreclosure deeds are not being processed on time. The delays were blamed on the sheriff not having enough workers.
“I need the public to understand this isn’t to thrive, but to survive,” said Barry, who started his full-time career with the county working in the former downtown jail. “We honestly have that great of a need.
“No one is trying to get fat here,” he added. “No one is trying to make $1 million. ... We’re in dire straits financially and it’s just not working anymore.”
Because staffing is so slim at the jail, shifts of workers are racking up 40 to 80 hours of overtime a day, Barry said. Those employees are overworked, unable to take earned vacation time and can’t keep going at that pace, he added.
The sheriff said he has had to shift manpower to the jail, which holds anywhere from 640 to 660 inmates a day. The moves come at the expense of training for specialized law enforcement units such as the bomb squad, he said.
“I’m very fearful of having to shut down specialized units,” Barry said.
Council studies issue
The county administration and County Council are now considering whether to place the 0.25 percent sales tax increase on the ballot in the spring, Barry said.
The sheriff’s office wouldn’t receive all the money collected from the increase, he said.
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of homework to do,” County Council President Jerry Feeman said.
Before any tax-increase issue was put before voters, he said, the county would research the need and examine, for example, how other counties of similar size staff and finance their jails.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want any of our deputies hurt or any of the inmates’ safety compromised,” Feeman said. “It’s pretty serious when you ask for a sales tax increase like that.”
He added that he doubts voters would support a tax increase strictly for the jail. That money would have to go for other county needs, as well, he said.
Councilman Nick Kostandaras said no decisions have been made.
“[Barry] put a compelling argument together in regards to the need for an increase in the sales tax for the safety forces,” he said. “We are looking at it very carefully.”
County Executive Russ Pry did not return a call seeking comment.
Sheriff slashes budget
Even if the sales tax issue makes the ballot, Barry conceded that he doesn’t know if the public would support it.
The overall sales tax in Summit is 6.5 percent, but only 0.5 percent of that goes to the county itself. The remainder is earmarked to the state and another portion to the Metro Regional Transit Authority.
The county percentage, which totaled $38 million last year, hasn’t changed since 1995 and is tied with Stark for the lowest rate in the state.
The sheriff’s office is the county’s largest general fund expense at $29.6 million this year. The bulk of the money — $19 million — goes to operate the jail. The sheriff has 438 employees, according to the 2013 budget.
In 2008, the sheriff’s department budget was $34.2 million. The office had 535 workers.
Barry said he’s tried to cut corners as much as possible, including a reduction in the number of vehicles that workers take home and the elimination of employee phones. He’s also applied for grants and tried to find free training classes for his deputies.
Report to require changes
In the end, the county’s hand might be forced when it comes to staffing at the jail. The sheriff is awaiting a staffing analysis from an independent researcher that was required as part of the agency’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over a lawsuit filed last year by female deputies assigned to the jail.
That report, expected to be completed next month, is expected to show that the county must hire more workers at the facility, Barry said.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction — in an annual inspection report issued in May — also warned the county to increase its staffing.
The state corrections department report also noted that deputies are not conducting required suicide watches every 10 minutes. The state also told the county that it must reduce the number of beds at the facility and increase inmate recreation time.
“ ... There is not enough staff to safely and effectively operate” the facility, the report stated.
That conclusion was not necessarily a news flash to Barry.
“We are at the extreme end of safety and it’s the wrong end for everyone,” Barry said. “And it’s time for the public to understand and is told that we need help ...
“Most of the government leaders say that they agree, but they don’t have anything to give us. I appreciate their support and spirit. I need some substance and it’s got to come from the community.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.