It’s common for county department heads to focus primarily on their own needs without looking at the big picture of the whole county budget when making staffiing and equipment requests. In some cases, they even will try to game the system, asking for more than they need in hopes of getting what they want.
But at some point, the requests are not out of bounds, not unrealistic, not more than what is needed to provide the services for which the department is responsible. At some point, it’s a matter of genuine desperation.
At a recent York County budget workshop, several department heads offered convincing evidence that the county has reached that point. These officials were asking the county council to reconsider requests for more staff and resources after many years of rejected requests.
County Coroner Sabrina Gast said she is “practically begging” the county for an additional full-time investigator, a helping hand she said she needed three years ago. Her office handled about 400 cases in 2006. Last year it was 1,500 cases.
So far this year, her office has handled more than 600 cases, and the year-end total is likely to exceed last year’s.
Probate Judge Carolyn Rogers said the last time her office hired someone – a part-time employee – was in 2003. That position became full-time in 2006 but the Probate Court has been forced to reduce daily appointments because too few people are available to handle requests. Her office has asked for two clerks.
Rogers also noted that since her office was relocated from the county courthouse to a temporary space at the Belk building in York, it has lacked proper security. Even with a “panic button,” police still are at least 10 minutes away in an emergency.
Joe Medlin, county Veterans Affairs administrator, needs a receptionist to help meet veterans’ needs. He anticipates his office soon will handle 19,000 cases a year with the influx of veterans from Iraq and those returning from Afghanistan.
He told the council he would settle for a part-time receptionist.
Sheriff Bruce Bryant asked for 20 new people for his office, including eight patrol deputies. He also has asked for pay increases to keep his force competitive with other law enforcement departments in the state.
“I’ve been asking for officers year after year after year, and I know I’m not getting them this year,” Bryant said.
Some council members, including Michael Johnson, would prefer to cut other recurring costs in the budget to meet these needs, which he said he believes are genuine. Others, including Councilman Bump Roddey, oppose what he calls the “cutting and starving” mentality on the council.
The council currently is considering a property tax increase that would add $6 to the tax bill on a $20,000 vehicle and $20 more on a $100,000 home. But that would cover only the cost-of-living salary increase for existing staff and the hiring of six new employees as mandated by the state.
There are no easy answers. While we don’t support arbitrary across-the-board cuts, we agree that the county should always be looking for ways to reduce expenses where sensible.
But Roddey makes a good point. He notes that after the county has experienced years of reduced spending – partly because of a sagging economy and partly because of a reluctance to raise taxes – the result is an accumulation of unmet needs like we’re seeing now.
“We can’t be blind to the fact we’re a growing county,” Roddey said. “You’re going to have to go back and increase staff.”
The county can’t simply quit providing essential services. It can’t perpetually ask employees to do more with less. It can’t jeopardize the safety of residents.
And taxpayers also must acknowledge that if they are going to demand quality services from the county, they are going to have to pay for them.
It is unlikely that the county can hire all the needed employees and provide the requested resources to all departments this year. But the time has come for the county to take a long-term approach to staffing departments at the level necessary to meet the needs of residents and performing the functions that will continue to make York County a great place to live and an attractive place to do business.