Swain County commissioners have opted to target one department rather than spreading out county budget cuts among all county employees.
Commissioners have scrapped the idea for a mandatory one-week employee furlough, which they had initially seemed to support, and have instead proposed cutting three deputies and one secretary from the Sheriff’s office.
It’s a move that could further the divide between commissioners and Sheriff Curtis Cochran, who is suing the county for allegedly paying him too little.
County Manager Kevin King proposed laying off a single deputy at an initial budget work session May 14 and enforcing a mandatory county employee furlough to help make up for the budget shortfall. King also proposed laying off two other positions — an environmental health inspector and a building inspector; both in departments that have taken a big hit with the slowdown of second home construction.
Then, at a second budget work session on Thursday, June 11, the majority of commissioners apparently changed their minds. Commissioner David Monteith, however, said the change of heart took him by surprise.
“We had a budget retreat four weeks ago, and four of us had tentatively told King we were OK with one position from the sheriff’s department and the environmental health and inspections departments being cut. Plus, we were going to have a furlough,” Monteith said. “I thought everybody was for this and all of a sudden, they weren’t.”
Monteith is adamantly against cutting sheriff’s department positions and says he won’t vote for the budget if that proposal is included.
“Times get hard, and crime goes up. Why are you going to pick on the one department that if crime goes up, you need these people on the streets to do their jobs?” Monteith demanded.
Apparently, the proposal to cut more law enforcement positions was laid out by King after the first budget work session as an alternative to a mandatory furlough.
“To me and the other commissioners, this one made the most sense,” said Commissioner Steve Moon.
The two deputies commissioners propose to lay off have only been in their positions since April, when they were promoted from their former position as jailers. Sheriff Curtis Cochran said the two were not needed in the jail, and asked that they be moved to the sheriff’s office as deputies. The county agreed.
As is frequently the case when looking at who to lay off, the county decided that “the last people hired are the first ones to go,” King said.
“We looked around and they were the last in and the first out,” said Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones.
Though supportive of the layoffs, Moon had initially expressed reluctance to trim positions in law enforcement.
“I’d hate to see us lose a position in the Sheriff’s department because in hard times, crime is rampant,” he said at the first budget workshop. “We need to support them, not cut positions.”
Now, though, Moon appears to have changed his stance.
“It’s unfortunate that we had to lay off some employees, but if we laid off the ones who are hired last with the shortest time on the job, to me that seems fair, though it’s unfortunate,” Moon said.
Moon said he never supported an employee furlough, though he didn’t speak out against it at the first budget workshop.
“I never did agree with the employee furlough. I did not like that idea,” Moon said. “People live payday to payday, and I didn’t think that was fair to the employees with the county.”
Monteith disagrees, though he said he didn’t entirely like the furlough either.
“I didn’t like to give the employees a furlough, but I would have rather done that than firing four out of one department,” Montieth said. “I just thought it would make more common sense to drop the salaries of all the people rather than pulling the cuts from one department.”
Moon and Jones say the Sheriff’s office will manage just fine, however.
“No, it’s not a good time to cut employees from the sheriff’s department, but now Cochran should have the same amount of deputies that (the former Sheriff) Ogle had,” said Moon. “Hopefully he can manage with what he’s got.”
Commissioners were scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday, June 16, as this paper went to press. The budget is expected to pass.