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Failed passage of police levy raises concern

November 07, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

A host of emotions plagued Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith on Wednesday, hours after learning not enough voters approved a proposed police levy.

Smith was disappointed with the result and is worried that deputies will leave the county.

He wonders if the outcome would have been different, if off-duty deputies had had more time to spread the word about the levy. Although 55 percent of the county's voters wanted the levy, 60 percent needed to punch the "yes" hole for it to pass.

"The bottom line is that there's a lot of people that do not realize the gravity of the situation in this county when it comes to what you need to protect the citizens in this post-9/11 world," Smith said.

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But Smith won't dwell on the negative outcome.

"It doesn't matter what the outcome, we're still going to do our job," he said. "We're not going to relinquish or ignore any of our obligations."

Had it passed, the levy would have generated $2.8 million over three years. The owner of a $100,000 home would have paid about $3 a month more in taxes.

With that money, the sheriff would have been able to hire 10 new deputies, buy new cruisers and other equipment, and give all officers a pay raise, averaging $3,000. A deputy's starting salary is $24,600.

Now, Smith said he plans to look at grants to see if he can garner equipment that way. He also wants to work with other county officials to see if expenses can be cut to allow him to have a larger budget. The sheriff's department receives $1,828,428 from the county.

The employment of some deputies hinged on whether the levy passed, Smith said, and he believes they might now leave for higher-paying jobs.

"They were sitting here looking forward to something that isn't going to happen," he said.

Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said she too had hoped the levy would pass.

"People want more and more police protection and that's the only way to get it," she said.

Crime is increasing, Games-Neely said, especially sexual assault cases and aggravated robberies that are not drug-related.

"We're through the roof right now," she said.

With less officers on the road, she has fewer cases to prosecute - but she knows crimes are being committed.

"I'm down 10 state troopers. Somebody's got to fill in the gap," she said.

The West Virginia State Police has lost troopers statewide, and is cutting back on nighttime patrols here as a result.

County Commission President Howard Strauss said he hopes to find enough money to give each of the sheriff department's 39 deputies a raise.

He said he has a dollar figure in mind, which is not as high as raises that would have been possible under the levy. He declined to elaborate, saying the discussion should happen during a commission meeting.

Funds do not exist to hire any more officers or buy cruisers, Strauss said.

Cpl. Ted Snyder, president of the Berkeley County Deputy Sheriff's Association, said it's too early to say whether his group will seek to place the levy on the ballot again.

In most of the county's 58 precincts, the levy garnered support somewhere in the low- to mid-50s percentile range.

However, voters in several precincts did not approve the levy with even a simple majority, including those whose polling places are Bunker Hill Elementary School (precinct 36), Back Creek Valley Elementary (47), Hedgesville Elementary (40), Tomahawk Ruritan Club (41), Berkeley Heights Elementary (24) and Otterbein United Methodist Church (17).

Most of the precincts that supported the levy with a 60 percent or higher approval rating were in Martinsburg, including voters whose polling places are Tuscarora Elementary School (precinct 10), Rosemont Elementary (9 and 11), Burke Street Elementary (7), Opequon Elementary (15) and the Berkeley County Youth Fairgrounds (52).

Of the 16,700 people who cast ballots Tuesday, more than 1,100 did not vote for or against the levy. They left that question blank.

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