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County budget hearings continue
Sheriff, coroner, IT request large increases
budget staged 005

Open budget hearings continued last week on Wednesday and Thursday with multiple departments presenting requests to the Dawson County Board of Commissioners for the 2019 fiscal year.

In perhaps the most anticipated of the budget presentations, Sheriff Jeff Johnson on Wednesday asked the board of commissioners to allocate $9.2 million for his total annual budget, an increase of almost $1 million from what he was allocated in 2018.

Johnson sued the board last year when it approved a budget that was around $700,000 less than what he had requested, stating that the amount allocated to him was “inadequate to perform the duties required of (his) office.”

In March a judge ruled in favor of the commission, stating there had been no abuse of discretion when the board set Johnson’s 2018 budget.

Perhaps as a result, Johnson appeared much more willing to work with the board this time around, and during his budget presentations, Johnson often stated that he would be comfortable working within the recommended numbers provided by the finance department, which are based on historic trends in spending in each department.

He also mentioned he had been working with the county finance, purchasing and facilities departments for various needs including finding quotes to replace the roof on the detention center. At budget hearings last year, several commissioners were adamant that Johnson utilize the county’s resources to find the best deals on contracted work and equipment purchases, which he had been remiss in doing during his first year in office.

The sheriff manages seven budgets with the addition of “traffic management,” which the board of commissioners added in April of this year. The board allocated funds for off-duty officers to control traffic outside of the county’s public schools during drop off and pick up, which will enable school resource officers to be inside the schools at those times.

The cost for the year for traffic management has been budgeted at $64,590, and the Dawson County Board of Education has agreed to reimburse fifty percent of the total cost.

Also a large increase this year is in the school resource officers budget, which was increased when the board approved two new officers along with the new traffic management system. Each public school now has a resource officer and salaries for the officers are also reimbursed fifty percent by the board of education.  

“I appreciate the two positions,” Johnson said. “I think it was a long time need to help secure our schools.”

The sheriff also asked for an increase in his other budgets, which include K9, E-911, detention, sheriff’s services (the courthouse) and his administrative budget, which includes criminal investigations, patrol and  administration.

The main increases come from personnel requests. Johnson requested 10 new positions total, spread throughout the departments: one in E-911, four in detention, one in investigations, two in patrol, one in sheriff’s services and one new position for IT. Several of the positions are currently “frozen,” meaning that at one time they may have had someone in that role but after that person left the position was not advertised or filled again.

Some of his biggest issues are focused on the emergency 911 department, where an aging computer system and staff retention is causing major concern.

Commision Chairman Billy Thurmond stated that he knew Johnson had been having trouble filling the three openings he had for E-911 dispatch and asked Johnson why he thought he couldn’t get anyone to take the jobs and stay.

“I think we’re just not very competitive right now with our pay and benefits,” Johnson said. “911 is a different beast, I’ll give it that. I don’t think that I could handle it. It takes a special multitasking person to be able to do it.”

Johnson said he had recently had a five-year veteran patrol officer turn in his two-week notice to go work in Dunwoody due to pay.

“He lives in Dawson County, his family is here in Dawson County, he’s buying a home in Dawson County, but unfortunately when you can go an hour down the road and make five or six more thousand dollars, it's hard to keep them here,” Johnson said.

Johnson has seen large overtime expenses, spending $58,600 so far this year for E-911 employees working over their shifts to cover the unfilled positions. That number could be halved, Johnson said, if the positions were filled.

The E-911 department has also been struggling with an outdated Computer Aided Dispatch system, which needs to be replaced, and has had consistent IT issues with various systems. Johnson has asked for $100,000 in property repair and maintenance costs for 2019, which is over twice the amount that was budgeted in 2016.

“Right now we’re gambling a lot,” Johnson said. “We were behind and we have been for several years on some maintenance contracts and different things like that. We do anticipate and are working on a new CAD system that should alleviate a lot of these maintenance costs.”

Johnson asked for an IT position to help with the maintenance and updating of the computer systems in dispatch and around the detention center. He said it was his hope that that person would specialize in the sheriff’s technology and systems and free up the county’s IT personnel to other tasks.

“There is so many systems you could spend a year over there and not learn everything,” said county IT analyst Will Shattuck. “We’ve done it for many years and just now have a grip of everything that goes on over there. Our biggest thing just like with every other department is retention- if we do find someone we want to retain that person because the knowledge they will gain and learn is going to be invaluable.”

Shattuck also said that the last refresh on the sheriff’s information systems that he remembered the county doing was in 2010.

“Some of the systems (don’t) even have maintenance available any longer, and that scares us and the sheriff as well,” Shattuck said. “If something does happen to these systems, if we can’t recover them, there is no recovery. We’re definitely in favor of trying to update some of the sheriff’s systems.”

District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines said he wanted to try to come up with a long term plan to make sure that updating the systems becomes a yearly process so it doesn’t get so far behind.

A new CAD system, which last year the sheriff estimated would cost around $500,000, is expected to cost several million dollars.

“We’ve got to come up with some way to work together to get this thing situated and it will help these maintenance costs as well,” Gaines said.

The sheriff also asked for several capital improvements, which are separate from the other budget requests.

Deputy Sheriff Greg Rowan presented a request to activate a Motorola emergency button on all of the deputies’ radios, which is a locating system that will send out a signal that the officer is in danger, as well as communicate which officer it is and provide a GPS location.

The cost would be $31,071 to activate the switch and purchase a server, which could also be utilized by other county departments such as emergency services or public works.

Other capital needs include $346,000 for a new roof for the detention center and continued replacement of the HVAC units in the building.

Also presenting on Wednesday were the magistrate court, Dawson County Family Connection and the Good Shepherd Clinic.

Magistrate Judge Lisa Thurmond presented her budget request with a $450 decrease while Family Connection Coordinator Nancy Stites asked for a $498 increase.

Thurmond is requesting a new part time judge position be added to help relieve her on the weekends, but the expense will fall within the budget she was allocated last year.

Kay Parrish, executive director of the Good Shepherd Clinic, presented a request for $2,000.

The Good Shepherd Clinic is a 501(c)(3) that provides free health care and prescriptions to those who work, live or go to school in Dawson County. Those eligible for the non-emergent medical, women’s wellness, hearing, vision and dental services include patients between the ages of 18 and 65 who fall at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.

“We solicit funds from around the state and in our community, and one of the things that the state is looking for is for us to include our whole community, and the only thing we don’t have is any of our county or city government that is involved in what we’re doing, so we’re unable to reach those funding because we haven’t reached out enough to you,” Parrish said. “I would like to ask us to touch lives together.”

Parrish provided statistics about the services the clinic has provided citizens while operating solely on donations and volunteer work.In the nine years the clinic has been open, 835 citizens have received services and in 2017 the clinic provided $840,000 in prescriptions to its patients.

Parrish requested funds from the county for the 2017 budget year but was denied, and did not present a request for 2018.

Presenting on Thursday were the coroner, facilities and IT, clerk of courts and the board of equalization, the county manager and the contingency fund.

Ted Bearden, county coroner, asked for an increase of a little over $20,000, most of which is the cost of an additional deputy coroner.

Bearden said the call volume at the end of July was already up 30 percent over last year, and while the county has not had to call other counties for help on cases, it can be hard to make sure the county is covered while Bearden and the two deputy coroners also work other jobs.

Earlier this year Bearden hired someone to work at his funeral home as well as to work as an additional deputy coroner, and Bearden said he has been paying the new deputy coroner out of his own pocket because there was no room in the budget.

Facilities and IT Director James Tolbert presented a $30,390 increase for facilities and a $46,138 increase for IT in 2019.

Increases in the facilities budget include the property repair and maintenance line item, which Tolbert said was a result of the building getting older.

A capital improvement cost of $100,000 is also requested for work on the lower parking lot of the KH Long building that houses the department of environmental health, drug court and No One Alone.

A personnel request for a new IT employee as well as security upgrades as a result of the county computer system being hacked earlier in the year make up the bulk of the increases in the IT budget. Capital improvements include $145,000 for phase two of the county-wide computer replacement project as well as audio/visual replacements in courtrooms A,B, C and D as well as the commissioners assembly room.

Clerk of Court Justin Power had the largest request for a decrease in his budget, coming in at $23,988 less than what he was allocated last year. A decrease in group insurance was the main reason for the overall decrease. 

“We’re trying to be as efficient as possible with what we’ve got,” Power told the commission. “Over the past eight years I've tried to cut the operating expenses, outside of salary, about $40,000."

Power also presented the budget for the board of equalization, requesting a $5,533 increase due to the large number of property assessment appeals coming in this year. Power said that the county had 290 appeals last year, but has seen 901 so far this year.

Wrapping up presentations was County Manager David Headley with a request for a new PR specialist to help communicate with media and organize special events.

Headley’s overall budget request was still $8,625 less than he was allocated in 2018.

Budget hearings continued today with the tax assessor, board of commissioners, parks and recreation and the county attorney making their requests.

The hearings will continue Tuesday with the Juvenile Court, Dawson County Chamber of Commerce, Keep Dawson County Beautiful, the arts council, library and health department.

Wednesday the board will hear from the senior center and transit, the planning department and marshal’s office as well as emergency services.

Thursday the hearings will finish out with fleet, No One Alone, DFACS, the humane society, CASA and the District Attorney’s office.

All hearings are held beginning at 9 a.m. in the second floor assembly room at the Dawson County Government Center. The public is invited and encouraged to attend.