Jones: Combining sheriff’s office, disaster agency would save taxpayers

Opponents say it would create conflict of interest in grant money distribution.

Claiming it would save Butler County taxpayers money by centralizing government operations, the sheriff’s department has proposed taking over the county’s Emergency Management Agency, but state law may hamper those plans.

Sheriff Richard Jones told the Journal-News his plan would all but eliminate a $400,000 taxpayer bill for the county’s Emergency Management Agency, or EMA, which rallies first responders in the event of a major disaster.

“I try to manage things at a less cost and I think things should be more centralized, not all split up,” Jones told the Journal-News.

The EMA is currently run by a director and three full-time employees who organize local first responders for major disasters such as Hurricane Ike in 2008 that left thousands without power for days and diminished the county’s water supply.

Jones has suggested the sheriff’s department assume EMA responsibilities, thus eliminating the need for a separate staff.

“What it comes down to is it’s everybody else’s cheese and nobody wants to let go of their cheese. The taxpayers have had all they can take of government services not being centralized,” Jones said.

This is not the first time Jones has suggested the sheriff’s department provide oversight of EMA services. In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, former commissioners Chuck Furmon and Greg Jolivette denied his request, but former commissioner Mike Fox supported the idea.

Jones said his plan would eliminate a $400,000 taxpayer bill, but the president of the EMA board said the sheriff has never presented a financial plan so it is unknown if that amount is accurate.

“Without having a plan, whether that is going to save taxpayers any money or anything, I can’t make a decision,” Gary Salmon, president of the EMA board, said. “I know what we’re doing now and it’s working.”

State law determines how EMAs are run, according to Salmon, and “there is no provision for it to be run in the sheriff’s department,” he said.

There have been several attempts to change that state law, according to Oxford Fire Chief John Detherage, who heads the Butler County Fire Chiefs Association, which opposes the potential sheriff EMA takeover.

“This is something that has been going on for several years. Usually at the end of session there is a last minute amendment introduced to a bill that looks like it is going to get approved,” he said. “Once the word gets out there is a huge uproar throughout the state, emails and phone calls to all the legislators, and the amendment gets pulled.”

Funding is the main reason the Butler County Fire Chiefs Association opposes such a change.

“The county EMA Director plays a key role in the distribution of grant funding. We are deeply concerned that these funds would be disproportionately distributed to law enforcement agencies, particularly sheriff’s departments, rather than being distributed to responders and communities based on need,” the group’s position paper reads. “The sheriff faces a potential conflict of interest with respect to the distribution of grant funding.”

Two Ohio jurisdictions do have EMAs run by their sheriff’s departments: Gurnsey and Lawrence counties.

About five years ago, Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless took over EMA responsibilities in the county of just over 62,000 residents.

“My goal and I think the commissioners’ goals at the time were to get an emergency operations unit established to where everybody is encompassed in the same entity, to where resources could be used more effectively,” Lawless told the Journal-News.

Jones said he is counting on the state legislature to give counties the “option” of letting a sheriff’s department run an EMA.

Commissioner Don Dixon, who is on the EMA board, said as long as the prosecutor’s office says it’s not allowed there won’t be any changes in Butler County.

“If the prosecutor says no, it’s no,” he said.

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