Program cut could impact county plans

WOODSTOCK – The loss of a federal funding source for law enforcement agencies could jeopardize or at least delay the construction a new Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office headquarters.

Sheriff Timothy Carter said Wednesday the recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice to cut the Asset Forfeiture Program would not interrupt the county’s effort to design a new office complex. However, the department’s action would affect the county’s ability to move forward to build the project, Carter said.

“The architectural firm has been hired so we know we can get that out of the way,” Carter said. “The question becomes what’s next, if anything.”

The county hired Grimm and Parker Associates in October to design a new headquarters for the Sheriff’s Office. The contract limits the cost of the first phase of the firm’s work to $72,000. The total cost to design the complex as well as to administer the construction of the project has been estimated at $600,000. That amount is considered to be roughly 10 percent of the estimated cost to build the complex, or roughly $6 million. Whether or not such a complex would cost that amount remains uncertain until the county puts the project out to bid.

The sheriff went on to say that his agency might know more information later, closer to when the architects complete the design, as to the full impact of the federal department’s action.

The architectural firm likely could present preliminary designs as early as this spring, Carter said. The firm has looked at potential sites for the complex, analyzed the current office needs and interviewed staff members, Carter said.

“The question’s going to be after you get that done then what’s next, if there is a next,” Carter said.

Some members of the Board of Supervisors have in the past voiced concern about the reliance on asset forfeiture funds to cover the cost of a new Sheriff’s Office headquarters. Carter has told the board on several occasions that he believes funding from the asset forfeiture program would allow the county to build a new office complex without using local tax dollars.

District 1 Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese expressed concern about the loss of the funding source.

“Well, I don’t know a whole lot about it other than what I’ve read and from what I read it’s not very good news,” Neese said. “Hopefully we can find it elsewhere. Hopefully it’ll be restored but it doesn’t sound very encouraging and really, until I know exactly how much and where it is, I’d hate to make a guess.”

County Administrator Mary T. Price sent out a memo Monday to members of the Board of Supervisors and District 3 Supervisor-elect Richard Walker regarding the recent information about the asset forfeiture program.

Price notes that the county and the Sheriff’s Office have used forfeiture money in the past to buy vehicles and equipment as well as to cover the salaries of school resource officers. The fiscal 2016 budget includes $1.05 million in asset forfeiture funds. That amount includes $121,413 for school resource officers’ salaries. The amount also includes $600,000 to cover the professional services associated with the engineering and construction administration costs for a Sheriff’s office complex. The balance is earmarked for training and equipment.

The use of asset forfeiture for the officers’ salaries is on a decreasing, graduated scale. By fiscal 2019, the county is expected to cover the salaries entirely.

In addition to past expenditures, there are conceptual plans for future expenditure(s) of those funds; both those received and those anticipated,” Price states in the memo. “As you will see in the letter, funds already received … are not subject to rescission; but could impact those that may have been anticipated.”

Price notes that the county has received approximately $3.44 million as of June 30, 2015.

The letter cited by Price and dated Dec. 21 from the U.S. Department of Justice to law enforcement agencies states that the department cut the Asset Forfeiture Program by $1.2 billion. The letter from M. Kendall Day, chief of the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, goes on to state that the department is deferring all equitable sharing payments to law enforcement agencies. However, agencies may continue to spend money already disbursed.

Carter said he questions what the department means by “deferred” with respect to the program.

“We haven’t been able to get any other information other than that letter,” Carter said.

The department notes in the letter that cutting the program now allows it to resume the payments later if the budget picture improves. The letter goes on to state that if more receipts in cases without identifiable victims are deposited later in the fiscal year, the department might resume the sharing on some or all of the deferred payments.

Carter commented on the broader issue of the changes made to the decades old program. It appears the federal department plans to keep revenue collected from assets seized as part of their investigations rather than share the money with assisting law enforcement agencies such as the Sheriff’s Office, Carter said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com