Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis said today there is a “very strong possibility” he will eliminate security at the courthouse and other secure buildings and shut down entire floors at the Queensgate jail in order to comply with budget cuts.
The county told its departments Tuesday they must cut their budgets by 6 percent.
The cuts, which total $6.9 million, are needed to prevent the cash-strapped government from falling into a fiscal emergency, budget officials have said.
“It’s a sad day,” said Leis. “In my 37 years in county government, I’ve never seen the county in such financial straits as this.”
Is this the right approach to budget cuts?
He also said layoffs are likely and patrol deputies will be told to park their cars for 30 minutes of each hour to save gas.
The county’s budget director, Christian Sigman, today is fielding calls about the e-mail he sent Tuesday telling departments they will have to cut 6 percent from their budgets through the end of the year. Half of the calls have been technical questions.
Of the other half, "25 percent have been calls saying ‘you know I’ll have to do this,’ and explaining what they'll have to do and 25 percent have said ‘I’ll see you in court.’”
But some departments question the legality of the mid-year order and say if they have to cut, it could result in less space to house inmates and fewer programs aimed at keeping the county safe.
"You're talking fundamental stuff and the ability of the court to provide fundamental services, be it (detention center) beds, programs that serve families and children or the ability to hear cases timely," said Mark Reed, Juvenile Court administrator.
"I don't know if they've thought about what this means in terms of public safety."
His department is being asked to trim $903,668 - the second largest dollar amount. It already cut its budget 10 percent coming into 2008, partly by closing 40 beds in its detention center. The department that would lose the most money is the sheriff's office at $2.2 million.
The county is telling 32 departments to cut their budgets by 5.96 percent for a total of $6.9 million. The Board of Elections is exempt because it is required by law to spend money on certain election-related items.
Because of laws regarding the separation of powers in government, some departments, such as the courts, could file a legal challenge questioning the county's authority to mandate the cuts.
County commissioners say the county has no choice. Revenues are on track to be $12 million less than expected because of the sluggish economy.
Typically, counties can dip into their reserve fund - like a personal savings account - in hard economic times. But Hamilton County's reserve fund is dangerously low because of what some characterize as careless spending in previous years. With the cuts, the reserve fund will be $13 million - or 5 percent of the county's total budget - at the end of the year.
If the cuts aren't made, the county will soon be broke and may not be able to make payroll.
"Unless we make these changes now, we will be there at the end of the year, which is unacceptable," county Commissioner David Pepper said.
Commissioners are expected to pass resolutions July 16 to formally reduce the amount of money each department is getting through the end of the year. Each department will be in charge of figuring out how to comply.