By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
A 30 percent “freeze” by the Jefferson County Commission on the Sheriff’s fiscal 2024 budget will present a number of challenges including reduced staffing; operational constraints; delayed equipment upgrades; and a potential increase in crime, Sheriff Mark Pettway said Thursday.
The commission quickly responded that a freeze on the sheriff’s budget FY 24 “is not factually correct.”
The 2024 Fiscal Year began Oct. 1.
The spat began Thursday morning when Pettway issued a press release titled “Sheriff Mark Pettway Responds to Jefferson County FY 24 Budget Freeze “We Can’t Defund Law Enforcement.”
The Sheriff wrote, “I acknowledge the need for fiscal responsibility and prudent budget management, but it is crucial to strike a balance between responsible fiscal stewardship and the safety of our community members.”
The sheriff continued, “the recent budget freeze presents challenges that will impact our ability to provide the level of service that our community has come to expect and deserve.”
Those challenges could mean reduced staffing and potential increase in crime, he wrote. “We are already understaffed, and the budget freeze will inevitably lead to a reduction in the number of deputies and support staff available to respond to emergencies, investigate crimes, and maintain essential services.”
He also wrote that if the Sheriff’s Office is “unable to effectively patrol communities or investigate crimes due to these financial constraints, there could potentially be an increase in crime rates which could lead to heightened community anxiety or frustration.”
County officials said they were caught off guard by the Sheriff’s comments and issued their own press release Thursday afternoon and said it requested a 30 percent freeze for “all” funded existing vacancies throughout the County System for FY 2024 – not just the Sheriff.
And they said, “This has no impact on [the Sheriff’s] operational expenses such as equipment, training, and outreach.”
Since the position freeze affects all county departments, “the county manager’s office has also indicated that if hiring efforts exceed forecasts, and a business need exists, he [County Manager Cal Markert] is willing to work with departments to address those specific situations,” according to the press release.
The county also said it funded a 10 percent pay increase across the board for Sheriff’s deputies for FY 2024 and a 4.7 percent increase to the Sheriff’s overall budget. “The commission also allocated $3.5 million to fund renovation of the Sheriff’s barracks for the training academy, in addition to the special $1.5 million allocation at the end of FY2023 for a total additional investment of $5 million dollars.
The county said it hopes the differences between the two sides are “simply a misunderstanding.”