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Onondaga County legislature, sheriff's department at odds over budget

Ellen Abbott/WRVO

Onondaga County lawmakers are putting a tighter reign on spending at the sheriff's department. The legislature approved the county's 2014 $1.2 billion budget Tuesday night. It included a budget maneuver that give's lawmakers more control over department spending that has come in substantially over budget the last few years, according to legislature chairman Ryan McMahon.

"If this was the health department, or any other department, the economic development, there would have been heads rolling a long time ago," McMahon said. "But we understand that the sheriff has a unique set of circumstances; he has a mission to accomplish, so we've been flexible. But flexible isn't two million dollars a year over your budget."

Sheriff Kevin Walsh says the problem is that the department has been underfunded in recent years, and losing officers, in some cases, has meant more overtime.         

"We either say to the public, call your legislator, don't call the police, or we say to the legislature, give us what we need to function to reasonably predict what we need to operate this year," Walsh said.

He also says the department's budget always gets slashed.

"We've asked for manpower, and we've asked for overtime and we've asked for vehicles, and now they want to take a vast portion of the money in our budget an drake us come back every time we need to buy toilet paper for the inmates," Walsh said. "Actually the sheriff's budget has been underfunded for years, and that's where the real problem lies. I'm down 47 police positions, but I'm expected to answer the same number of police calls and provide the same amount of police service."

The sheriff says if lawmakers decide to cut back on spending, some of the items that will be lost, will be the county's participation in Operation Impact, and overtime pay for deputies handling extra traffic duty for big events like Jazzfest.

Legislator Casey Jordan says the legislature is labeling $3 million of the department's $79 million budget as contingency funds, which means lawmakers will be able to have more control over that spending.

"I think there's a great deal of frustration in the legislature, that year after year after year the sheriff's department, goes over budget, especially in overtime," Jordan said. "So this is a way to kind of keep a tighter grip on it all, and to monitor their spending to a larger degree than we've been able to in the past."

The $1.2 billion budget also lowers property taxes slightly and cuts spending.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.