A day after Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway released an emotional statement about the Jefferson County Commission freezing 30% of his budget and the implications that decision could lead to, he backtracked Friday, saying he had it wrong.
Thursday, Pettway sent out a press release to all residents saying the Commission's decision would mean reduced staffing, decreased employee morale and retention, delayed equipment upgrades, and decreased training and community outreach. The Commission was in a meeting when the press release went out.
"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," Pettway said.
However, it appears Pettway didn't comprehend the rationale and purpose behind the budget freeze, and it is unclear if he sought answers before sending out his press release. So, Commission president Jimmie Stephens reached out to Pettway as soon as he got out of Thursday's meeting to explain that the county was actually helping the sheriff's office. Stephens told 1819 News he wished the misinformation wouldn't have been made public.
The Jefferson County Commission then sent out a release to clarify confusion to the public. The release stated that the requested freeze would only impact a percentage of vacant positions countywide.
Helen Hays, the director of public information for the county, said it has been made clear that several departments, including the sheriff's office, have struggled to fill vacant positions. That has been the case with the sheriff's office for a year or more.
That's why Hays said it only makes sense to use unused funds from unfilled positions on operational or capital needs.
When the budget was being considered, Hays said the sheriff's office had 123 vacancies, "a number that steadily increased over the last several years to its current level."
She said the department would have to fill 86 positions to meet the threshold for a freeze.
Friday, Pettway said he had reached an understanding concerning the freeze.
"To ensure clarity about the matter, the county manager and commission president have assured Sheriff Pettway that the funds typically allocated for the vacant positions will be redirected to benefit the Sheriff's Office in the form of salary increases for current deputies that will improve the Sheriff's Office's ability to retain its workforce, reduce turnover, and the costs associated with it," the sheriff's office said in a statement. "While the freeze on vacant positions implies a short-term halt on expanding the workforce, the reallocated funds could be used for overtime pay. Additionally, this strategy includes a commitment to bring on more deputies in the future."
Once again, Pettway mentioned the importance of transparency.
"It's essential for the Sheriff's Office and the County Commission to maintain transparent communication with the public about these changes, ensuring that Jefferson County residents understand the rationale behind the freeze and it's [sic] anticipated benefits," Pettway said.
The sheriff's office has not responded to any media inquiries by 1819 News in the past year, including an interview about the budget freeze with the sheriff.
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