BISBEE — Cochise County is in the same situation as governments everywhere, trying to forecast just how bad and how long the negative economic impacts will be due to the state shutdown from the COVID–19 pandemic.
The budget team and the Board of Supervisors sat down last week to talk with department directors and elected officials to go over the various budgets, and made known they were taking a hard line against any increases and looking for ways to maximize every dollar.
The most expensive service supported through the General Fund is the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office (SO). The SO budget team asked for an additional $860,195 for the 2020-2021 fiscal year bringing the total request to $17.9 million which is about 24 percent of the county budget.
The SO has a total of 196 employees, which includes detention officers.
During a work session April 30, Chief Deputy Thad Smith compared SO with other counties in the state that have a higher percentage of General Fund money allocated for law enforcement. For instance, 30 percent of the General Fund budget in Navajo and Mohave Counties goes to their SOs. Coconino County SO gets 29.5 percent of the county’s General Fund, but does not include the cost of operating the jail, which is covered by a jail district tax.
“The CCSO is consistently underfunded by 10 percent,” Smith told Supervisors Tom Borer, Ann English and Peggy Judd.
However, County Administrator Ed Gilligan responded, “The SO is actually 31.9 percent of General Fund expenditures. This is a tough comparison.”
Gilligan pointed out Mojave, which “has more problems with drugs and gambling,” and Navaho counties are much larger than Cochise. Coconino County is over 18,000 square miles, three times the size of Cochise.
Borer said SO concentrates coverage in the higher populated areas. “I agree this is not an apples to apples comparison.”
Smith countered saying, “Cochise County has no (Native American) reservations. And, we share a border with Mexico and continually contend with border issues.”
The SO also provides Search and Rescue Service (SRS), a statutory requirement, and civil process services, said Smith. “The SO is a heavy lifter in law enforcement. Our 196 employees provide quality service for less and we have to be sure our men and women have everything they need to do their jobs.”
County budget manager Daniel Duchon provided a list of expenses requested by the SO which totaled $1.85 million and covered a long list including market adjustments to wages, overtime and comp time.
The SO deferred all the requests early on in the budget process.
Sheriff Mark Dannels said, “Our budget is essential to the people of the county and they have high expectations. The budget is mandated by the citizens of the county. This is my eighth budget meeting with the board. We always hear what we can’t do. It’s the most important department to our citizens.”
Borer noted, “This is about getting to the point where we can take care of the whole county. We may not agree on how the departments compare. Everybody believes everything they do is equally important. This is something we all have to wrap our heads around.”
“We are in a position of not having a lot of room for give and take. We’re not going to leave ourselves vulnerable,” he added.
Financial crimes unitEnglish questioned where the seizure money from the financial crimes unit ends up and Smith told her it went to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) program, which sometimes can take a year or two for the SO to see any compensation.
The financial crimes unit was established through a grant from the Howard Buffett Foundation, English said. “The thought was they’d be so successful that it would pay for itself, but we’re not recovering anything.”
Smith acknowledged her concern and credited the problem with the “sweeping changes” made to the RICO program.
Smith’s presentation showed the unit’s production for the county, with $5.374 million in fraudulent deposits blocked since 2016, when the unit was formed. In 2019, $720,547 in seizures was pending court actions for which the county has received nothing so far.
English noted the unit may not be able to be funded after the grant runs out. “They need to sustain themselves.”
Smith said he would provide a breakdown and explanation of the financial crimes unit for the supervisors.
Jail costsCochise County jail operations, which are in the SO budget, cost around $5 million annually, said Jail Commander Kenny Bradshaw in an email to the Herald/Review.
Bradshaw also explained he had hoped to add five new detention officers over the next six years at an annual cost of $262,168 to initiate the necessary changes to make the jail safer for staff and inmates.
“No detention officer is allowed to be alone with an inmate at any time,” he wrote. “In order to accomplish this, additional posts had to be created. This was implemented to reduce opportunities for inappropriate staff-inmate relations, false allegation against staff and staff assaults.”
Smith added, “We developed a staffing model which is how we arrived at the need for 30 additional D.O.’s. which came to a total cost of $1.573 million. Obviously, this is a big chunk of money for a single year expenditure, so we intended to present a six-year rollout to the BOS which would reduce the annual new money to $262,168 per year for six years, at five detention officers a year.”
“We also intended to ask for 12 additional deputies and use a three or four year rollout to reduce the annual cost to the county budget overall.
A couple of weeks before the deadline to submit the funding request, the Sheriff and his command staff discussed the current pandemic and economic uncertainties which were being discussed at the BOS and County Administrator offices.
“After much discussion, we collectively agreed that as a gesture of good will in working together with the BOS, we would pull those funding requests with the intent to submit next fiscal year.”
More to comeBorer told Dannels and Smith the budget would be “continuously reviewed” due to COVID-19. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just bear with us.”