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Sheriff, Strauss at odds over cars, calls

August 29, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Tempers were tested at the Berkeley County Commission meeting Thursday afternoon, when the sheriff and the commission president argued over budgets and answering phone calls.

In what turned into nearly a two-hour argument, Sheriff Randy Smith and Commission President Howard Strauss raised their voices and each was unwilling to back down.

Strauss and Commissioner John Wright also exchanged curt words. Wright told Strauss that he seems to get picky at certain times of the day. "I just saw you work the sheriff there. Don't try it with me," Wright told him.

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The discussion between Smith and Strauss started when Smith told the commissioners that he needs to buy eight new police cars to replace eight that each have more than 150,000 miles on them.

His problem, he said, is that the commissioners eliminated equipment budgets for every county department.

Smith said he believes this may be the first time department heads have not been allocated money to buy equipment.

"It's an embarrassment that he does not have an equipment line item," Wright said.

Strauss, though, would not budge and said there's no money in the commission's budget to buy police cars. He suggested that the sheriff pool all of his cars, rather than let deputies take them home.

Smith argued that letting deputies take cruisers home keeps crime down in their neighborhoods. Plus, deputies take care of them. If they were used 24 hours a day, they would need to be replaced more frequently, he said.

In the end, a work session was tentatively scheduled for Sept. 25 to further discuss the equipment issue.

After tackling that topic, Smith and the commissioners moved to the issue of handling phone calls that come to the sheriff's department's phone number from 4 p.m. to midnight.

Citing a liability issue and the fact that his secretaries are not trained dispatchers, Smith asked that 911 operators answer those calls. The commissioners agreed and that was done last year.

Now, though, 911 dispatchers say answering those nonemergency calls adds more pressure to their already-stressful jobs.

Mary Kackley, 911 director, asked that the sheriff's office resume handling those calls. Since taking over the calls last year, Kackley said, all but one or two were nonemergencies and could have been handled by clerks in the sheriff's department.

Smith said he cannot take over those calls.

When the phone rings, he said, nobody knows whether it's going to be an emergency. Dispatchers at the 911 center have high-tech equipment to handle an emergency.

He held up what his clerks previously used - a black box about the size of a car stereo and a small antenna.

That, he said, is not sufficient.

Strauss said Kackley has three vacancies out of 16 positions. Smith countered that he has only four clerks working out of the six he is allowed.

Although she did not have any figures with her, Kackley estimated that 40 percent to 45 percent of her calls are nonemergency ones previously handled by clerks in the sheriff's office.

Sometimes those calls come in at the same time as true emergencies, she said.

"It's a problem because people's lives are at stake," Strauss said. He maintained that the sheriff's department should take the calls.

Attempting to mediate, Commissioner Steve Teufel said he wanted to resolve the stress both departments face. He asked whether the sheriff could hire two people to handle the calls.

Smith responded that the county will not allow him to hire any additional people.

In the end, no action was taken on the matter.

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