By Alex Bridges
WOODSTOCK - Shenandoah County leaders have backed the sheriff's plan to put more deputies into schools this fall.
The Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to accept Sheriff Timothy C. Carter's proposal to use
asset-sharing or forfeiture money to hire four deputies who would serve as school resource officers. Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli was not present for the vote.
Carter proposed that his office spend $608,927 in funds the agency receives through its combined law enforcement efforts with federal authorities who seize money or other assets from criminals. Of that amount, the Sheriff's Office would spend $162,506 on salaries and benefits for the four school resource officers.
But at the meeting, Carter showed frustration during questioning by some board members. Supervisor David Ferguson and Chairman Conrad Helsley asked Carter whether his office would provide new or used vehicles for the school resource officers. Carter told the board he had not planned out that far, which prompted Ferguson to raise concerns about the sheriff's thinking with regard to spending the money on equipment.
"I'm just saying, gee whiz, this is a lot of money," Ferguson said. "If you're going to propose it, I would have thought that you would ask the similar questions as to what you were going to do with these five vehicles you'd have known what the answer is."
Carter said he didn't find out from the board until late in the budget process how his office and the county could finance the needs. The sheriff noted that he has several options on how to assign vehicles and equipment to officers.
"That's an operational issue that I didn't come here today to go car by car," Carter said.
The sheriff also said that to put off action on the proposal any further could mean a delay in hiring officers by the time school begins. While some current deputies have expressed an interest in serving in the schools, Carter advised that any new recruits would still require weeks of training. The time crunch also includes the fact that the asset money can't be spent until July 1.
Carter urged the board to approve his plan and explained that it takes time to order, vehicles, weapons and computers, and then more time to organize and put the equipment into use.
"We're here, it's the middle of May," Carter added. "We're trying to make a commitment that by the first [day] of school we'll have most of this taken care of. I'm very concerned that, as the time goes by, it's more and more difficult to make that happen."
Ferguson voiced frustration at Carter for not providing a written statement from the federal agency in charge of asset sharing indicating the Sheriff's Office could use the money for the proposed use. Carter said he needed direction from the board and a clearer idea of whether supervisors would back his proposal before he could send a request for such a statement.
Carter sent a memorandum dated April 23 to the board that outlined how he proposed to fund certain needs with asset forfeiture money. The sheriff has offered to use the funds to hire four deputies to cover the remaining schools that don't have officers on duty. Under Carter's five-year plan, his office would fund 80 percent of the total cost to hire the four deputies, with the county providing the other 20 percent. The funding ratio would shift in subsequent budget cycles to the point the county would cover 80 percent.
Carter also offered to use asset-sharing funds to cover the entire cost of vehicles and equipment for the officers.
Despite the Sheriff's Office having a history of using asset forfeiture money for certain agency expenses, some board members remained cautious about funding deputy positions with that source. Ferguson reiterated his request for a letter stating the sheriff could hire deputies with asset forfeiture funds. Carter said federal guidelines allow him to use the money to hire non-traditional law enforcement officers.
Ferguson also questioned whether or not the sheriff should spend $110,802 of the asset-sharing money to buy equipment for the county's Special Weapons and Training team.
Helsley asked Carter about the weapons needed for officers, the cost for each firearm and how many he would buy. Carter said he estimates spending roughly $43,000 for seven firearms. SWAT officers assigned but not yet equipped would receive night-vision equipment. Helsley also asked about how many officers the sheriff has assigned to the SWAT team. The total also includes other basic equipment such as radios.
The question arose again as to whether the Strasburg Police Department would continue to provide an officer to the school system as it has this current year. Helsley has said on more than one occasion that the town would not provide the officer, thus requiring the county to fund five deputies for the schools. Town Manager Judson Rex has said Strasburg would continue to provide the officer.
County schools Superintendent B. Keith Rowland appeared at the meeting and told the board that he received a memo from the town informing him of Strasburg's intent to continue to fund the officer. Rowland provided copies of the memo for the board as Helsley and other officials said they had not received it.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org