Governor says no more money for sheriff
A political standoff on Beacon Hill could leave the Dukes County sheriff’s department without enough money to pay staff or take care of inmates at the Dukes County Jail by the end of next month.
Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack says his department will run out of money about the first of May, with two months left in the current budget cycle, unless a supplemental budget appropriation is voted by the legislature, or the administration of Governor Deval Patrick changes its stance on a supplemental appropriation.
The sheriff cites three factors for the impending budget gap. He says fixed costs such as fuel, food, and transportation increased $298,151 over the previous budget cycle. Because of a sharp drop in home sales, he estimates revenue from the deeds excise tax will be $191,716 less than anticipated. He also says continuing problems with the budget process left his department with approved funding $133,394 less than the year before.
These and other factors leave the department short $627,984 for the current budget year, according to Mr. McCormack. However, he said he does not foresee the budget dispute reaching a crisis stage. "I don’t see the administration jeopardizing public safety," he said. "The consequence of not funding would be laying off staff, which would create a situation where inmates would be locked up for a long period of time, which could lead to unrest, or early release of inmates, which none of the sheriffs would favor."
Sheriff McCormack and six other county sheriffs were notified on April 1 that the Patrick administration would not recommend supplemental funding to county budgets.
"Given current spending and revenue projections, the Commonwealth’s overall balance sheet cannot meet all the requests for deficiencies that we have received," wrote Leslie Kirwan, secretary of the executive office for administration and finance, in a letter to sheriff McCormack. "We are asking all agencies to find ways to reduce their costs and live within their current appropriations."
Her letter follows weeks of political maneuvering at the State House over an administration plan to assimilate seven county sheriff’s departments, including the Dukes County department, into the state administration. Following objections from sheriff McCormack and others, a legislative committee is set to effectively block the plan, by sending it to a study committee.
The plan to transfer county sheriffs’ operations to the state was a response to the request of several counties for a more equitable budget process. Because of the uncertainty over revenues, including slowing revenues from deeds excise taxes, the county sheriff departments have been starting each budget year with appropriations that most agreed were insufficient. The sheriffs relied on supplemental appropriations at the end of the budget year.
"It is a real change," said Sheriff McCormack. "The last several years, we also started off in the same situation. Everybody agreed that there would have to be some sort of supplemental request. Year after year we start the year with a number we know is insufficient. It puts us in a position with absolutely no ability to plan ahead for the year."
In her letter, Ms. Kirwan refers to the legislature’s inaction on the administration’s plan to bring the sheriff’s into state government. "Because the legislature has chosen to study this proposal and it is unclear when a more permanent solution to this problem will be in place," she wrote. "It is advised that you take steps that will bring your spending in line with available revenues or work with county commissioners to find additional revenues to support your request."
It is unclear how the county would react to a situation where the sheriff’s department runs out of money. County commissioners, facing their own severe budget constraints, provide about 25 percent of the sheriff’s operating budget, funded mostly from assessments paid proportionately by the six Island towns. In the current fiscal year, the county provided $505,466 toward the sheriff’s operating budget.
Sheriff McCormack says if the county does run out of money, he might turn to the state legislature for a supplemental appropriation to finish the year.