County department heads let loose their grievances this week as the proposed budget continues to underfund government needs.
Of the $12.4 million in estimated needs requested by county departments, over $300,000 was cut.
These cuts came on top of a request for each department to cut costs before submitting their estimate of needs.
County Clerk Jeanne Heidlage, who initially saw a cut of $11,000, on top of $46,000 in voluntary cuts before the estimate of needs was submitted, was the first to speak out against what she claimed were unfair practices in deciding how to appropriate budget funds.
“I asked for a decrease of 9 percent of my budget. When it was finalized it was 11 percent. Other offices have been given a 30 percent increase in their budgets from what was requested in previous years,” Heidlage said. “How was it determined which departments got some increase and which departments got no increase and which departments got a bigger decrease?”
“We took these on a case by case basis and we tried to prioritize them. Obviously we can’t fulfill everybody’s needs,” County Commissioner Steve Hendrix said. “Almost every department received less than what their estimate of needs was.”
Heidlage questioned both the double up on cuts and the irregularity of how appropriations are awarded.
Regarding the voluntary cuts, she said, “Those cuts were based on a meeting that said we only had last year’s revenue to work with. That changed. When it was determined that this year’s revenue was going to be more, it was never brought back to the officers to say we ended up with more money, now what?”
In regards to appropriations, Heidlage said, “I asked for $10,000 in capital outlay. There are offices of one that had $9,500 in capital outlay and offices of two that had $29,000 capital outlay. My office has $7,500 in capital outlay to run an office of nine people. It doesn’t make sense.”
“County clerk, court clerk, county sheriff, county treasurer, county commissioners. That’s the priority funding,” Heidlage said, indicating that state statute says county property taxes should specifically be used to fund these departments. “How do offices that are not statutorily funded by ad valorem taxes take precedence over an office that is statutorily funded by ad valorem taxes?”
“We have been good stewards of our money. We’ve done things economically. We’ve run our office lean. We’ve run it efficiently. And yet we were denied,” Heidlage said. “My office needs to be funded. I didn’t ask for a million dollars. I didn’t ask for the moon. I asked for an increase in capital outlay of $10,000.”
In response her request, Commissioner Dan Delozier offered to give $10,000 from the District 1 cemetery account to the county clerk’s office.
“For the record, these are tax dollars to appropriate, not your money to give,” Heidlage said.
Sheriff Scott Walton similarly felt as though basic needs in his department were not being met while the county was prioritizing other concerns.
“We’re always hurting for more bodies in more cars,” Walton said, indicating that during some shifts the sheriff’s department is below minimum staffing level with three patrol deputies on shift, responding to calls across 711 square miles of the county.
Walton compared the county’s coverage of 56,540 residents with six or less patrol officers on a shift to the municipal forces in Claremore and Owasso who cover less people in a smaller land area with a larger force on each shift.
These constraints are a danger to deputies and the public, Walton said, because of roadway safety and lengthy response times.
Meanwhile, Walton said, his deputies are frequently maxed out on overtime hours and are supplemented by a volunteer and part-time force.
“When work loads get like this and staff level get this low, employees start to look elsewhere,” Walton said. “If they can make more money and work less hours on another force, we become a training ground for low level law enforcement.’
The Sheriff’s office request of $2.66 million was cut by $20,000.
“I know every department has needs, but we’re the only office in county government that goes 24/7, 365,” Walton said. “We’ve got a responsibility to the people we serve.”
In response, Hendrix said, “I know since I’ve been here we have had discussions with the Sheriff’s department and tried to fulfill their needs … We are doing what we can to help the Sheriff’s department as a priority, and I don’t anticipate that we are going to stop doing that in the future. We’re always going to look for ways to help fulfill those needs, but to do it at this time, at this late hour, I’m going to need more time to digest this and fit it into my budget.”
The Board of County Commissioners and Excise Board will reconvene Tuesday to finalize the county budget.