The Howard County Council approved the future hiring of five new deputies thanks in large part to a federal grant, but some worry the council may be overextending itself financially since there are many financial unknowns due to COVID-19.
The council voted 6-1 Tuesday night at its regular meeting to accept the maximum amount of $625,000 the county was awarded through the COPS grant issued by the U.S. Department of Justice. Councilman John Roberts, R-District 1, was the sole “no” vote.
The grant covers 75% of a deputy’s starting salary and benefits up to $125,000 per officer for three years; the county covers the remaining 25%. The grant requires recipients to cover the full cost of salary and benefits for all the new hires through the grant for at the very least a fourth year.
After the four years, the county can decide to keep the new positions or get rid of them either through budget cuts or attrition.
It also requires the county to use the money for the length of the grant to supplement its police force, not to replace a leaving deputy, meaning if a deputy retires or leaves the department the county must fill the vacancy and can’t designate a deputy hired with help of the COPS grant as the replacement.
Howard County Sheriff Jerry Asher told the council the department is currently planning on assigning the new deputies to specifically work on violent and drug crimes and that the department will be keeping statistics on the activities of the new hires, including the number of arrests made.
The county was awarded enough money to cover in part the salaries and benefits of five new deputies but could have chosen to only accept enough money to cover one, two, three or four new hires.
It’s unknown if the county will be able to afford the extra costs for the five new deputies in the fourth year and possibly beyond in its General Fund without cuts or additional revenue.
That unknown left some on the council apprehensive about committing future money without knowing what the financial state of the county will be at that time given the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on government finances for the foreseeable future, especially if the U.S. Congress doesn’t allocate aid to state and local governments.
Councilman Roberts said when Sheriff Asher first brought the grant to the attention of the county council at last month’s county council meeting, he was for it. But that approval was predicated on the belief the county could use the new hires through the grant to fill any vacancies that come up, which the council found out Tuesday is not the case.
“I understand the need and all, but we’re also going right through this COVID interruption, and we don’t know what is over the horizon,” Roberts said. “I’m more likely to wait for a new grant ... and put this one off until we see in our crystal ball where we are financially.”
County Auditor Martha Lake said she too had concerns about the county not being able to afford the salaries and benefits for the five new deputies, but also the other expenses that come with new employees, including uniforms, other equipment and additional police vehicles.
“I’m not concerned with one or two. I’m concerned with, as we go forward, with five,” Lake said. “I believe in what you [Sheriff’s Department] do, you know that, but I think it’s a lot of money.”
Others on the council, though, felt the investment in the public safety was well worth it.
“This is, at five officers, the best investment in this community that I’ve seen in years,” Trine said.
Councilman Bryan Alexander, R-District 4, and Councilman Stan Ortman, R-At-large, agreed with Trine. Ortman said he believes the extra deputies could help make a difference in the fight against the drug epidemic.
“Some 16 to 18 years ago we started the drug court ... since then we’ve added problem solving courts, added a regular judge, added a magistrate and we’ve added all these clinics, whatever, to cure our [drug] problem,” Ortman said.
“This is one place we can go to maybe stop it and stop the supply where we need all these other stuff. ... It takes a lot of time to get it done, but if you don’t have the tools to do it, it’ll never happen. The money we’re talking about is very minimal compared to everything we’ve put in trying to fix the product of what these slimeballs have done to us.”
“Today, we’ve spent more time treating the symptom than the problem,” Trine then said.
“I think you summed up what I was trying to say, thank you,” Ortman said to Trine.
Councilwoman Jamie Bolser, R-District 2, said she was concerned with what the county finances will look like in the upcoming years due to the pandemic, but also said she believes there needs to be more investment in public safety.
“I feel like we’ve put a lot of investment into different courses to try to be able to fix this problem on the other side of it, and I think there’s a missing component of an investment in public safety that we need to make,” she said.
“I’m worried that this is in the middle of a pandemic. I’m worried that there’s a lot of unknowns. But I tend to probably lean closer to what councilman Bryan and Tom had said that one of our top priorities is public safety.”