Police bill cost: $279,000 or $1 million? Rehrmann, sheriff differ widely on tab

July 18, 1993|By Mike Farabaugh and Frank Lynch | Mike Farabaugh and Frank Lynch,Staff Writers

Legislation to establish a county police force and greatly limit the power of the sheriff will be submitted to the County Council Aug. 10, but Harford's county executive and sheriff differ widely on how much it will cost to implement the changes.

Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who is strongly pushing a bill that would implement the countywide force, says it will cost $279,000 in the first year to make the changes.

Sheriff Robert E. Comes, who favors keeping the office as it is, says the changes can't be achieved for less than $1 million.

The sheriff is responsible for police patrol and dispatch, criminal investigation, the Detention Center, courthouse security and process serving.

Mrs. Rehrmann's plan would transfer all but those last two duties from the sheriff to the county.

A chief of police, appointed by the county executive and approved by the council, would head a county police force. A warden, similarly appointed, would run the county jail.

Both Mrs. Rehrmann and Sheriff Comes have provided figures of their cost estimates, and Harford taxpayers, seeing the $721,000 difference, are unsure who is closer to the truth.

In fact, both may be truthful. The difference in their estimated costs depends on interpretation.

Mrs. Rehrmann held a public hearing Monday night at C. Milton Wright High School near Bel Air.

She told about 250 people that the county would spend $279,000 initially to make the changes, but only about $100,000 annually thereafter.

Sheriff Comes held a news conference Tuesday to rebut that $279,000 figure.

With Carl B. Klockars, a criminal justice professor at the University of Delaware and consultant to the Maryland Sheriff's Association, at his side, the sheriff said his best estimate to accomplish what Mrs. Rehrmann plans would "far exceed $1 million."

Mr. Klockars said it would cost $500,000 to move the police dispatch main-frame computer from the sheriff's office in Bel Air to the Emergency Operations Center in Hickory.

That cost, however, will be covered by a federal grant from the Emergency Preparedness Fund, according to Chief James W. Terrell of the Emergency Operations Center.

The sheriff contends that the cost is an expense; Mrs. Rehrmann maintains it has already been paid for by the federal government.

Any item already in the fiscal 1994 budget is not an expense, according to the list of costs Mrs. Rehrmann provided Tuesday afternoon in response to the sheriff's press conference.

The salary and benefits package for a police chief, for example, will cost only $16,129, her figures indicate. That amount, plus $53,000 from a vacant major's position, is the sum needed to hire a police chief at $69,129 a year.

Mrs. Rehrmann's cost estimates do not include the salary of a warden for the Detention Center, already budgeted for 1994.

The 1994 budget for the sheriff's office is $15.9 million. It was $14.3 million in fiscal 1993.

At Tuesday's news conference, Sheriff Comes and Mr. Klockars produced statistics from 1990 that showed Harford spending $43.40 per capita for all police services.

The document noted that Howard County, the closest in population to Harford, spent $97.50 per capita.

They suggested that Harford's lower cost was evidence of an efficiently run sheriff's office.

Mrs. Rehrmann countered that the Harford figure was outdated, and Mr. Klockars agreed.

"They are out of date," said Mr. Klockars, "but I guarantee the difference is minuscule."

George Harrison, spokesman for the administration, said Mrs. Rehrmann's per capita cost figures are based on dividing the budgeted $15.9 million by the county population of 198,000.

That calculation produces an annual per capita cost of $80.66 for police services.

Mr. Harrison said he believed Mr. Klockars' $43.40 per capita figure was based on the 1989 fiscal budget. If so, the 1989 budget of $10.1 million for operating the sheriff's office would have required a county population of more than 235,000 to account for Mr. Klockars' $43.40 per capita cost figure.

Mr. Klockars said Wednesday that he thought he had used the 1990 Census and 1992 fiscal budget to calculate his per capita costs.

If he had, his calculation of the annual per capita cost of police services should have been $72.42, almost double the figure he provided Tuesday.

If the proposed legislation is passed, an elected sheriff will earn the same $56,000 salary paid to Sheriff Comes, but for the limited duties of overseeing courthouse security and serving court papers.

Mrs. Rehrmann has maintained that her primary motivation in seeking to transfer the sheriff's authority to the county is accountability.

The county is responsible for any liability incurred by the sheriff's office, but has no say in the operation of that office.

In April, the county paid a $400,000 settlement to the family of a Delaware laborer found dead under suspicious circumstances in isolation cell at the Detention Center. The man, William M. Ford, was serving a 30-day sentence for drunken driving.

That incident, initially called a suicide by Detention Center investigators, is still under investigation. Because of the

settlement, the county can incur no further liability.

Mrs. Rehrmann said an additional $115,500 settlement in November was paid to 87 deputies who were denied overtime wages for being required to report to work 15 minutes before roll call.

That policy ended when Sheriff Comes took command.

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