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Body-worn cameras for Carroll County Sheriff’s Office may have to wait as fiscal 2022 budget tightening continues

Carroll County commissioners may delay implementation of body-worn cameras for Sheriff’s Office personnel as they finalize the county’s fiscal 2022 budget.

Funding for the devices had been included in the coming year’s budget, but many changes have been made during work sessions as the Board of Commissioners sought to reduce expenditures. The commissioners have expressed concern about projected budget deficits and the possible need for tax increases.

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The cameras will be mandated for use by all law enforcement field officers in Maryland by July 2025, because of laws passed in this year’s General Assembly.

On Thursday, the commissioners decided to wait to fund body-worn cameras and the extra personnel needed for the deployment of the devices until mandated. That decision is not final as another work session is scheduled for Tuesday at 1 p.m. and still another could be held Thursday. But everyone seemed in agreement after commissioners Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, and Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, said they had spoken to Sheriff Jim DeWees.

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“I do want to be clear, it’s not that they’re not needed. If he had them yesterday he would be ecstatic,” Rothstein said. “He is prioritizing the work within the sheriff’s department and the funding, knowing that it’s limited. … He, the sheriff, believes that body-worn cameras are a necessity, they will be mandated and he wants to meet those requirements, but can hold off.”

Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, offered some pushback.

“The body camera is a protection for our deputies,” he said, noting that people with “boots on the ground” have expressed that same sentiment to him.

But Frazier said given that DeWees is fine with holding off for a few years, the commissioners should listen to him.

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“The guy who’s the head of the department says they’re not needed till 2025,” Frazier said. “I think we should go with the expert on that one.”

In an email to the Times, DeWees said the commissioners accurately reflected his position. He has previously pointed out that buying the cameras are the inexpensive part of the proposition, but that the need for staffing will increase.

“It’s inevitable when you have that much camera footage … it’s going to require a lot of personnel,” he told the commissioners in February, while also expressing his support for getting body-worn cameras. “It keeps everyone in check, it holds us accountable and it also holds the people we have contact with accountable.”

The decision to hold off on cameras for the countywide police force has nothing to do with municipal police forces, which have previously stated plans to begin using the technology long before the 2025 mandate.

“It only takes one emotional incident to make our agency, or the Sheriff’s Office, the focus of national attention,” Westminster Chief of Police Thomas Ledwell said in February. “I think the expectation is that we have this technology now in policing.”

The commissioners have lamented the difficulties associated with the budget process this year, not as much because of how fiscal year 2022 (FY22) is shaping up but because of what future budget projections look like.

The sheriff’s office requested $4.2 million on top of the $700,000 increase the commissioners planned to put toward salaries in an effort to get sheriff office and detention center pay in line with surrounding Maryland counties, to help with recruitment and retention. The commissioners are tentatively planning to fund about half that request.

The Board of Education had requested an increase of $11.4 million, the number that was expected after an agreement in 2020. However, due to the pandemic, the increase was pulled back last year and, given the budget climate, there was not sentiment to return to that level of funding. An increase of $6.2 million is currently being used in the spreadsheet the commissioners are working with.

Solid waste has also been a much-discussed topic over the past three weeks. Tentatively, plans are to use $25 million of the $48 million available in the county’s unrestricted fund balance to go toward expenses needed for opening a new area (cell 4) of the Northern Landfill and constructing a transfer station. It was decided Thursday that a study should be done before increasing how much solid waste is buried in the landfill to 55,000 tons per year. Had that increased rate begun this year, the landfill’s useful life would have decreased from 110 years to 20 and cell 3 would’ve filled up in three years rather than 23, the commissioner were told by public works personnel.

The current plan for rest of the unrestricted fund balance is to move $7 million to the capital budget for sitework on a planned sheriff’s office headquarters, to use more than $4.3 million to pave all remaining gravel roads in the county, to use some $4 million on other infrastructure projects and to give Carroll Community College $1 million for technology while holding onto about $7 million.

Based on the tentative changes during budget work sessions, the current operating budget is projected to produce a surplus of nearly $1.8 million in fiscal 2022 and $3.8 million in fiscal 2023. From there, however, future budgets turn red. Based on committed expenditures and projected revenue, fiscal 2024 shows a negative balance of $1.8 million. And it gets much worse from there, with the fiscal 2025 deficit projected to be more than $6 million, some $12 million in fiscal 2026 and nearly $16 million in fiscal 2027.

“I’m very uncomfortable with this budget because of those numbers from ’24 on out,” Frazier said.

Raising taxes has been brought up as an option over the past few weeks, but has been rejected for now (although there will be an increase to the monthly 911 fee on every cellphone line).

Tax discussion recommenced Thursday.

“Looking at our budget, where we are, a tax increase is inevitable at some point in time and it’s not going to be a small tax increase, as we take on more and more services,” Weaver said, noting the need to fund the county’s police force, adding a countywide fire/EMS service and the growing price of public education. “People need to understand this. It won’t come this year or maybe next year, but it will come.”

Rothstein conceded “we’re now living beyond our means.”

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said he was not inclined to go back on a campaign promise.

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“When I got elected to this office in 2014, I promised my constituents I would not raise taxes and I will not go back on that promise this year or next — and I will certainly not do it, even if I would almost be convinced to do it, in the middle of a damn pandemic when I’ve got people who are struggling,” he said, noting that even a modest increase of $125 would be too much for some people to bear right now who are also likely to be hit with state and federal tax increases in coming years.

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Frazier was critical of the campaign promise.

“I don’t see how you make a promise at the beginning of an election of what you’re going to do the next four years. You don’t know what’s coming down the road,” he said. “It means you’ve already taken something off the table that could’ve been a valuable tool.”

Rothstein reiterated that as the county recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, it is not the time to increase the tax burden. Weaver said he merely felt the need to point out that “somewhere down the line we’re going to run out of money.”

“The number keeps growing in the out years and somehow it’s going to have to get solved,” he said.

Said county Budget Director Ted Zaleski: “We need to be moving toward a place again where we think we have the revenue to cover expenditures.”

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