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Supervisors deny plea to apply funds to interstate

Sheriff asked surplus go toward paying deputies for extra hours after crashes

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors has denied Sheriff Timothy C. Carter's request to use surplus funds to pay for deputies to pull extra hours on Interstate 81 targeting bad drivers.

The vote came about a month after the most recent fatal crash on Interstate 81 in Shenandoah County took the lives of two brothers driving back to Maryland from a Texas university. A tractor-trailer slammed into the back of their Honda as they sat in a backup from another tractor-trailer crash.

The past year has been particularly deadly. In Carter's estimation, 10 people have been killed in highway crashes in 10 months.

A highway safety grant from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, funded with federal highway transportation safety money, pays for deputies to work overtime enforcing traffic laws. In a Thursday interview, Carter said he expects that grant to be about $23,000 to $24,000 this year.

He said he posts deputies in areas that receive a high volume of complaints, such as Va. 55, Va. 42, Va. 263 and U.S. 11. It also funds seat-belt enforcement pushes. Besides targeting speeders, deputies are on the watch for motorists passing improperly, driving recklessly, tailgating, driving aggressively or otherwise posing a danger.

A year ago, the enforcement was expanded to the interstate, "primarily [because of] the complaints that have been generated out there, the amount of crashes," Carter said. "There's been some very
serious traffic crashes, and we were receiving inquiries from the public if we could do anything more. We just decided to try to do a little bit more.

"When there's a visible law-enforcement presence, that does deter vehicle violations."

He said he's met with the state police and the Virginia Department of Transportation. Those two agencies are preparing statistics to present to the supervisors this fall, and VDOT is doing a comprehensive traffic system audit, Carter said.

"We have trooper vacancies in our county," he said. "They try to make do with what they have. We were just trying to do a little bit more to help."

On Aug. 19, he asked the supervisors' finance committee to funnel $14,400 -- either from the roughly $12,500 left over from fiscal 2009 Sheriff's Office overtime funds, or from the $76,000 that went back into county coffers from fines generated by the highway safety program -- to supplement further highway safety program shifts.

The supervisors voted 3-3 on the request, killing it, at the Aug. 25 board meeting. According to not-yet-approved minutes from the meeting, Board of Supervisors Chairman David Ferguson, District 6 Supervisor Conrad Helsley and District 4 Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli voted against it.

On Thursday, District 5 Supervisor Dennis Morris said his constituents are afraid to use I-81 during peak hours.

"We can't eliminate it, but [we can] try to curb some of the speed issues," he said. "If we can eliminate a small portion of this, we would be doing our part as county leaders representing our constituency.

"It's just a way of life here. Eighty-one is a convenience, but anymore, it's a convenience you're taking your life in your own hands."

In the minutes, Helsley blamed weather conditions for fatalities.

"It starts to rain, people are driving faster than they should, they don't give themselves enough room between the next vehicle and the next thing you know you have an accident, then on the other side the people are rubbernecking," he says. "I am not sure that we can make much of a dent by just transferring the $14,000 out there in the system where I think it is going to have to be the people themselves realize they have too much speed, they don't have enough space between the vehicles."

He reiterated those comments on Thursday, adding, "The other thing is, it's really the state police's bailiwick."

"I have very major concerns about I-81, but I don't know that that's going to cure it," Helsley said.

Baroncelli said the highway falls under the state police's and VDOT's jurisdiction.

"They need to take care of their responsibility first," she said Thursday.

Ferguson said 32 hours of overtime is already being used per month, and the sheriff's request would add another 16 hours, according to the minutes. If the county picks up the costs of patrolling 81, it "sends the wrong message" to the state police, he said.

According to the minutes, Ferguson said he'd be "more receptive" to having state police increase patrols or have a sheriff's deputy regularly assigned to the highway. He questioned how many of the crash deaths were the result of inattentiveness or weather conditions.

"Giving a ticket to a speeder, would that have prevented one of these deaths, I don't know, I somehow question it though," Ferguson says in the minutes.

Carter said he withdrew the funding request rather than have it referred back to the finance committee.

"Based on the comments from the board, it wasn't a priority for them, and it wasn't an issue that they felt like [they] needed to act on."




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