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Sheriffs, jails brace for big cuts

LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. (AP) — Eyes watery, throat raw and sniffling back a runny nose, Jessica Whitlow left the comfort of her bed and dragged herself to work last week in the nerve center of Brunswick County’s modern but crowded jail.
She would sit there at least 12 hours as she does every shift, one of two people who scan an array of computer monitors and juggle emergency calls for problems as diverse as tanker blasts and kitchen grease fires. Any time 911 is dialed in the sprawling county, Jessica and her shiftmate answer it, even during restroom breaks thanks to wireless headsets.
‘‘My two dispatchers page out everything in the county,’’ said Sheriff Brian K. Roberts. ‘‘All seven volunteer fire departments, all three volunteer rescue departments, all three municipal (police departments), and the sheriff’s office and the state police.’’
‘‘All my people work 12-hour shifts,’’ he said.
It’s a numbing half day of high stress in a seat where lapses can cost lives. The day can be twice as long if the next shift calls in sick. So, still on the mend from bronchitis, Whitlow reported for duty in the freezing early morning.
That’s life in a department stretched to the ripping point, where thin staffs force long days, nights and weekends, and Brunswick County isn’t unique.
‘‘We do everything, and we can’t afford to lose anything,’’ said Charlotte County Sheriff Thomas D. Jones.
In rural, urban and suburban communities, sheriffs are alarmed. They’re telling legislators, local officials, reporters and all who will listen that state budget cuts of $72 million endanger the safety net for the people who run every local jail, guard every courthouse and, in 86 localities, keep the peace and enforce the law.
‘‘Last year, we saw double-digit increases in property crimes and armed robberies. On the civil side, we saw double … the number of evictions,’’ said Sheriff Charles Jett of Stafford County, one of the state’s fastest-growing, who figures he stands to lose 14 people from his staff.
‘‘Law enforcement is a core service that cannot be compromised,’’ Jett said at a Capitol news conference last week.
However, the taxes Virginia’s government collects are at least $3 billion short of spending budgeted a year ago. Twice since then, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has ordered cuts, and now it’s up to lawmakers to balance the budget despite the deepest recession in decades. The Democratic governor and legislators in both parties have said that schools, health care and even law enforcement, held harmless in previous tough times, must now be fair game.
The slim hope of avoiding sharp cuts lies with the prospect of federal support in the $800 billion-plus stimulus package now before the U.S. Senate. Until Congress finishes work on the bill, there is no way to know how much aid local law-enforcement can expect.
In places like Brunswick and Newport News and Charlotte County, the cuts all mean trouble.
Roberts’ sunny nature and easy smile melt away when talk turns to the prospect of laying off two or three of his department’s 39 employees under a projected loss of $92,000 from the state.
‘‘Listen, we’re a dead skeleton staff,’’ he said, explaining how he only has two deputies in two cars to patrol Brunswick’s more than 900 miles of back roads covering 600 square miles of rolling farm fields and woods on busy weekend nights.
If he doesn’t cut patrols, that leaves corrections. His jail — with beds for only 43 — had 56 inmates last Thursday, some of them billeted on plastic-and-foam mattresses on the concrete floor among 12 bunks in one community cell block. But that’s less than half of Brunswick County’s inmate population of 120, and Roberts pays nearly $1 million a year in rent to house the overflow in other jails, one nearly a 90-minute drive away.
One place almost impossible to cut is communications, where Jessica Whitlow and seven others have to cover 14 half-day shifts each week. Whitlow and her fellow dispatchers typically work the grueling shift three days in a row, then have three days off.
In Newport News and localities with their own police departments, sheriffs guard the courthouses, protect judges, serve official papers and care for a growing inmate population.
‘‘It comes down to a public safety issue and it’s about how much are you willing to compromise,’’ Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan said. ‘‘I tell you right now the judges … aren’t willing to compromise on their bailiffs or the screeners at the front door.’’
Behind bars, when things get crowded they get more dangerous. That’s particularly true, Morgan said, when up to one-fifth of his inmates are detained because of mental illness.
‘‘I had a deputy who had five titanium plates put in his face and lost his eye because of an attack from a mental health person,’’ he said.
Not only is the tanking economy creating more crime, it has left his department struggling to keep pace with eviction orders brought about by the foreclosure crisis and people’s inability to pay rent.
‘‘One day, I had as many as 100 eviction orders come in on a Monday,’’ he said.
Now, by his calculation, the cuts would cost him 18 full-time deputy slots and 18 part-time ones.
‘‘As you can see, there’s not a lot left for us to maneuver with,’’ Morgan said.

AP-ES-02-02-09 2119EST

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Sheriffs, jails brace for big cuts

LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. (AP) — Eyes watery, throat raw and sniffling back a runny nose, Jessica Whitlow left the comfort of her bed and dragged herself to work last week in the nerve center of Brunswick County’s modern but crowded jail.
She would sit there at least 12 hours as she does every shift, one of two people who scan an array of computer monitors and juggle emergency calls for problems as diverse as tanker blasts and kitchen grease fires. Any time 911 is dialed in the sprawling county, Jessica and her shiftmate answer it, even during restroom breaks thanks to wireless headsets.
‘‘My two dispatchers page out everything in the county,’’ said Sheriff Brian K. Roberts. ‘‘All seven volunteer fire departments, all three volunteer rescue departments, all three municipal (police departments), and the sheriff’s office and the state police.’’
‘‘All my people work 12-hour shifts,’’ he said.
It’s a numbing half day of high stress in a seat where lapses can cost lives. The day can be twice as long if the next shift calls in sick. So, still on the mend from bronchitis, Whitlow reported for duty in the freezing early morning.
That’s life in a department stretched to the ripping point, where thin staffs force long days, nights and weekends, and Brunswick County isn’t unique.
‘‘We do everything, and we can’t afford to lose anything,’’ said Charlotte County Sheriff Thomas D. Jones.
In rural, urban and suburban communities, sheriffs are alarmed. They’re telling legislators, local officials, reporters and all who will listen that state budget cuts of $72 million endanger the safety net for the people who run every local jail, guard every courthouse and, in 86 localities, keep the peace and enforce the law.
‘‘Last year, we saw double-digit increases in property crimes and armed robberies. On the civil side, we saw double … the number of evictions,’’ said Sheriff Charles Jett of Stafford County, one of the state’s fastest-growing, who figures he stands to lose 14 people from his staff.
‘‘Law enforcement is a core service that cannot be compromised,’’ Jett said at a Capitol news conference last week.
However, the taxes Virginia’s government collects are at least $3 billion short of spending budgeted a year ago. Twice since then, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has ordered cuts, and now it’s up to lawmakers to balance the budget despite the deepest recession in decades. The Democratic governor and legislators in both parties have said that schools, health care and even law enforcement, held harmless in previous tough times, must now be fair game.
The slim hope of avoiding sharp cuts lies with the prospect of federal support in the $800 billion-plus stimulus package now before the U.S. Senate. Until Congress finishes work on the bill, there is no way to know how much aid local law-enforcement can expect.
In places like Brunswick and Newport News and Charlotte County, the cuts all mean trouble.
Roberts’ sunny nature and easy smile melt away when talk turns to the prospect of laying off two or three of his department’s 39 employees under a projected loss of $92,000 from the state.
‘‘Listen, we’re a dead skeleton staff,’’ he said, explaining how he only has two deputies in two cars to patrol Brunswick’s more than 900 miles of back roads covering 600 square miles of rolling farm fields and woods on busy weekend nights.
If he doesn’t cut patrols, that leaves corrections. His jail — with beds for only 43 — had 56 inmates last Thursday, some of them billeted on plastic-and-foam mattresses on the concrete floor among 12 bunks in one community cell block. But that’s less than half of Brunswick County’s inmate population of 120, and Roberts pays nearly $1 million a year in rent to house the overflow in other jails, one nearly a 90-minute drive away.
One place almost impossible to cut is communications, where Jessica Whitlow and seven others have to cover 14 half-day shifts each week. Whitlow and her fellow dispatchers typically work the grueling shift three days in a row, then have three days off.
In Newport News and localities with their own police departments, sheriffs guard the courthouses, protect judges, serve official papers and care for a growing inmate population.
‘‘It comes down to a public safety issue and it’s about how much are you willing to compromise,’’ Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan said. ‘‘I tell you right now the judges … aren’t willing to compromise on their bailiffs or the screeners at the front door.’’
Behind bars, when things get crowded they get more dangerous. That’s particularly true, Morgan said, when up to one-fifth of his inmates are detained because of mental illness.
‘‘I had a deputy who had five titanium plates put in his face and lost his eye because of an attack from a mental health person,’’ he said.
Not only is the tanking economy creating more crime, it has left his department struggling to keep pace with eviction orders brought about by the foreclosure crisis and people’s inability to pay rent.
‘‘One day, I had as many as 100 eviction orders come in on a Monday,’’ he said.
Now, by his calculation, the cuts would cost him 18 full-time deputy slots and 18 part-time ones.
‘‘As you can see, there’s not a lot left for us to maneuver with,’’ Morgan said.

AP-ES-02-02-09 2119EST

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