Dueling statements continue EMA battle between Butler County sheriff, current board

The Butler County Emergency Management Agency board has responded to the county sheriff’s proposal to take over the EMA , saying his report lacks specificity and is potentially fraught with pitfalls.

The sheriff’s office quickly filed its counterpoints to the EMA report in the polarizing issue.

EMA Director Matt Haverkos wrote the 16-page statement for his board and submitted it to the Butler County commissioners. The statement was in response to the sheriff’s proposal that was offered in July by Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer.

“The (sheriff’s) report lacks many basic details …,” Haverkos wrote.

“The report also fails to identify any proposed budget, costs, changes in per capita funding, contractual terms, an assessment of BCSO staff who would be asked to perform emergency management duties, and many other essential pieces of information.”

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Sheriff Richard Jones says he can save about $150,000 by taking over EMA by halving the four-person office, reducing redundancies and increasing efficiency.

Dwyer responded to 41 items Haverkos addressed in the statement in a report he will also forward to the commissioners.

“Our report clearly states that it will reduce to per-capita expense borne by each political subdivision,” Dwyer wrote. “The capabilities of Sheriff’s staff are well known, and we have numerous well-trained professionals. EMA leadership has refused an assessment of current EMA staff and operations thus restricting a more detailed report.

“However, a county executive does not need every detail to make a decision regarding the supervision of operation like that of EMA.”

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

Haverkos explained what his agency is responsible for, according to state law.

“Emergency management is not a replacement for the police, fire, ambulance, or other community emergency response groups, but rather a system for coordinating, supporting, and managing emergency response,” Haverkos wrote. “Under ORC 5502, each Emergency Management Agency in Ohio coordinates and supports local response and recovery in an emergency and works in predisaster times to build a comprehensive all-hazards emergency management program.”

Money is a big issue in this debate. 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 resident for EMA services, which totals $147,491. Hamilton pays the most at $24,215 per year, and the tiny hamlet of Jacksonburg, with 63 residents, pays $24.57.

In the grand scheme of things $150,000 doesn’t sound like a lot of money. When asked about that Dwyer replied it is to some people.

“It depends on how you compare it, when I talk to a trustee in a small township they need every dollar they have to fill every pothole they have,” Dwyer said. “It has come in meetings, there’s township trustees that site on this (EMA) board that said they cannot afford another dime of per capita.”

The sheriff’s plan also includes cutting the 18-member advisory board to six. The board is made up of most jurisdictions that pay for the EMA. In the sheriff’s plan, there would be a representative from his office, fire departments, police, townships, cities and the county commissioners.

Haverkos pointed out in the impact statement that the Ohio Revised Code calls for board of at least seven members so “he’s outside the law with what he’s identified anyway.”

Dwyer attached a number of support letters to his written presentation, including from the cities of Fairfield and Hamilton. Haverkos challenged that too, saying officials there are “neutral” on the subject.

“We’ve done well with Butler County EMA and its current format. We’ve never felt like they didn’t do what we needed them to do. It’s been a beneficial relationship,” Hamilton Fire Chief Mark Mercer told the Journal-News. “If the sheriff takes that over I don’t expect that it will be a huge loss. Certainly there’s efficiencies that’s going to be lost but I don’t have a political tie to either one.”

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

Some officials have said neutrality would be lost with the sheriff’s takeover. As a neutral agency, representing all jurisdictions, everyone has a say in financial issues. That could change, according to Haverkos.

“Placing Butler County’s emergency management program under the BCSO would remove a significant and vitally important system of checks and balances which ensures that our first responders have access to essential radio communications equipment and services at a reasonable price,” Haverkos wrote.

“The BCSO, if given authority over the emergency management program in Butler County, would then have complete control of charges for access to the radio system and funds could be expended from the emergency management program to operate the BRICS radio system.”

Dwyer noted the commissioners have authority over administering and maintaining the radio system, and the sheriff is responsible for operations.

EMA Board Chairman Gary Salmon, who is also the Butler County Township Association president, said the issues they raised may never materialize.

“Whether that ever happens nobody ever knows, it’s an unknown,” he said. “Some people discuss neutrality but we won’t know that answer.”

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