Butler County sheriff’s EMA moves: What both sides are saying about a possible takeover

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones wants to take over the county’s Emergency Management Agency, but the “polarizing” issues that could stymie the plan, officials said.

Sheriff’s office officials contend such a takeover would save money and streamline some services already provided by the department in managing multi-department responses to serious events.

But current EMA officials say the move could compromise federal funding and argue that, even if the move could decrease the budget for EMA, there are larger budgets — like that of the sheriff’s office — that could be addressed first.

The Emergency Management Agency is not a first responder to emergencies, as the local police and fire agencies retain that role. The EMA becomes involved when incidents beyond a common emergency occur and other resources are required.

For example, when 70-year-old Jay Butterfield became trapped in his grain silo last month, EMA called on the county engineer and water and sewer departments to bring equipment to siphon some of the quicksand-like material out of the tower that was crushing Butterfield.

RELATED: Butler County sheriff’s official to packed meeting: We can save $150K by taking over EMA management

“We don’t own a lot of those resources, we just coordinate them. I think the grain bin incident really highlights the collaboration in this county and both law enforcement and fire bringing in resources they know can help and are willing to help like water and sewer and the engineer’s office,” EMA Director Matt Haverkos told the Journal-News. “Those were the keys that really made the incident as successful as it was.”

The sheriff has been trying to overtake EMA for over a decade, but until recently the commissioners couldn’t consider it because it was prohibited by state law. The takeover is legal now that State Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp., inserted a provision in the transportation bill that allows the takeover.

The sheriff wants to halve the EMA staff to two people, which will yield a $150,000 savings and bring more resources to bear, according to sheriff’s office Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer.

Dwyer presented the sheriff’s plan before a packed house at a Monday county commissioners meeting. Jones didn’t attend because of another engagement, so Dwyer spoke for the office.

Fairfield Twp. Fire Chief Tim Thomas said officials have continuously asked the sheriff for a written plan that has still not been presented.

“We need to see that written plan so we can decide exactly what is the issue we’re concerned with,” he said. “He’s asking for a blank check, we’re not going to sign a blank check, ever. That’s not what we’re here for, that’s not what our residents expect of us.”

The commissioners asked for a written proposal, and Dwyer told the Journal-News Wednesday he hoped to have a plan for the commissioners by the end of the week.

“I will definitely provide them those details they’ve asked for, so they can take their time and digest the full report,” he said. “Outlining exactly how we will go about identifying the work that’s being done there, and what work obviously is duplicated that can easily be taken over and then what things cannot, and what skill set those that are there now have and may benefit the county in other locations.”

The 2019 EMA budget is about $400,000 funded by $300,000 from local jurisdictions and federal grants and another $100,000 for special teams like hazmat. Every community pays 39 cents per head for EMA for a total of $147,491. Hamilton pays the highest rate at $24,215 per year, and the tiny hamlet of Jacksonburg, with 63 residents, pays $24.57.

Several people who spoke at the commissioners meeting said they were concerned the county would be trying to fix something that isn’t broken. All along, Jones has said he wants to save the county taxpayers money. EMA Director Matt Haverkos said he doesn’t understand the logic, when the sheriff’s 2020 tax budget request represents an 8.8 percent increase.

The sheriff’s budget is by far the biggest in the general fund at $40.6 million. Dwyer has said dispatch center and jail understaffing and the need to beef up electronic monitoring staff caused the request for 23 more people.

“I would look at the sheriff’s budget which is 10 times my budget,” Haverkos said. “I think if we’re going to take apples to apples then we really need to look at where can we do the best savings for the county. Is it with the smallest budget in the county or is it with the largest budget in the county?”

Dwyer said the EMA proposal fits with commissioners’ fiscal goals.

“The commissioners at times look at every possible location for savings and that’s why the county is in the financial situation they are in compared (with) other cities,” Dwyer said. “Because of their diligence. They’ll look at big budgets and small budgets and make adjustments when necessary. That’s what we’re presenting to them, is a cost savings that will be sent back to the entire county for the per capita.”

Haverkos said the county may save half the per-capita costs, but the $150,000 in matching federal money could be halved as well.

“By changing the workforce for what we’re doing it does have an impact on that 50 percent grant funding that we receive,” Haverkos said. “If me and another person are doing it (EMA work) then those other two people, we would lose the grant funding that we had.”

Dwyer told the Journal-News he doesn’t believe that grant funding will be negatively impacted by his proposal.

Haverkos also said he is on the regional committee for state Homeland Security funding that brings in about $500,000 to $1 million every year to this region. He suspects the sheriff sitting on that board could be considered a conflict of interest because the sheriff has received funding from that source.

“In 2018, I was one of the votes and our projects moved forward with $340,000-plus in Butler County projects,” he said. “Again, that is a committee made up of EMAs which is where the comments about neutrality come into play. If you have seven EMAs sitting on there and one sheriff’s office sitting on there, I was able to get sheriff’s office equipment as a neutral party as well as equipment for tech rescue, Hazmat and EMA projects.”

MORE: Butler County sheriff working on an EMA-takeover proposal

Dwyer said in addition to the two EMA staffers — Haverkos has a job if he wants one — he can have about a dozen of his people helping out with EMA duties. West Chester Twp. resident Ryan McEwan, who is a professional emergency manager, is concerned the county will lose important EMA experts.

“I’m a little bit concerned that the sheriff’s proposal is premature in the fact I’m not sure they really understand some of emergency management roles and responsibilities,” McEwan said. “Today we heard that part of the proposal would be potentially cutting two emergency management staff and replacing them with 12 to 15 sheriff’s personnel.

“While I think that’s great from a financial perspective, it doesn’t take into account you’d be cutting two very skilled, specialized emergency managers and replacing it with 10 to 15 generalists and there is a certain time and learning curve that those 10 to 15 people are going to have to have.”

Because the question about where EMA services should live is divisive, some including Commissioner T.C. Rogers said they’re concerned about continuing damage to relationships no matter how it is resolved.

“There are apparently two sides, my thing is we are blessed that the people that are doing the functions up and down the line are some of the finest in the state,” he said. “But do I have to have a concern that whichever way this goes one entity will not be as one when there is a crisis.”

The city of Fairfield and Hanover, Lemon, Liberty, Madison, Morgan and West Chester townships all sent letters of support of a sheriff’s office takeover of EMA two years ago, the last time the issue was seriously raised. Dwyer provided a packet of those letters to the commissioners again.

A number of outside agencies, the county police chiefs’ association and fire chiefs in Fairfield and Hamilton sent support letters this month. The two fire chiefs said they will be happy to work with the sheriff.

“We are all aware this issue has polarized many of the emergency response agencies in Butler County and it is time to reunite those parties in constructive dialogue to benefit the citizens of Butler County,” Fairfield Fire Chief Don Bennett wrote.

Liberty Twp. Trustee Board President Steve Schramm said he doesn’t have enough information, especially on the monetary front, to support or oppose the move, but he trusts the commissioners to make the right call.

“From a first-responders perspective, which would include some of our staff, I’m not sure that I really care who calls them out,” Schramm said. “I know there’s been a lot of anxiety from several of them, that they don’t like it being under the sheriff’s purview, but they’re professionals, they’re first responders, I know they’ll do their job.”

All three commissioners have said they’ll reserve judgment until they see Dwyer’s written plan, but Commissioner Cindy Carpenter has backed the sheriff’s idea from the beginning. She said she will be meeting with McEwan to discuss his concerns.

“The meeting brought up some additional concerns from the various communities,” she said. “So I think it makes it even more important to read the sheriff’s plan and evaluate that. Previously I was in support of the sheriff operating EMA, because of having one point of contact that’s accountable for knowing where every piece of equipment is, knowing who has the training in what areas, I am very much leaning that way.”

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