By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: January 12, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.
As workloads increase, so too does the need for additional staffing
PRINCE GEORGE – Just before the end of the year, county supervisors moved forward with allocating over $100,000 to a series of additional county positions as workloads in several county departments are causing significant inefficiencies or, in the case of local prosecutors, cases not being pursued in county courts.
During their last meeting of 2019, supervisors voted unanimously to pull $109,828 from the county’s undesignated fund balance to fund one new full-time position within the sheriff’s office, the commonwealth attorney’s office and the county garage, along with the conversion of another position within the garage as each of the departments faces their own challenges in terms of workloads and a need for additional support to accomplish tasks.
The action comes after the board had heard details of these needs during a work session in September, where they agreed via consensus to consider the positions at the midpoint of the current fiscal year, which was last month. Additionally, the positions had been included in the county’s proposed budget but were ultimately removed in the spring of last year prior of adoption as the state compensation board did not provide funding to help support them.
According to county documents, the funding allocated to the Prince George Sheriff’s Office will allow them to hire an additional full-time deputy sheriff that will help in assisting with “increased workload and scheduling challenges posed by the Courthouse lower level expansion and the addition of three judges during 2019.”
Last summer, the county completed a renovation of the lower level of the Prince George courthouse to include a new courtroom dedicated for juvenile and domestic relations cases. Prior to its completion, the county was the only one within the Sixth Judicial District to not have separate courtrooms for JDR and general district courts.
Since its opening, county documents state the number of court sessions between July and the end of 2019 had increased by 70, or 35 percent when compared to the same time period in 2018. When looking at the numbers, while circuit court sessions remained relatively steady rising from 92 in 2018 to 102 in 2019, the number of general district cases increased from 44 to 87 and JDR cases climbed from 64 to 81 during the same time period, bringing the total number of sessions to 270 in 2019, up from 200 the prior year.
According to the county, the significant increase in sessions and workload “places a strain on current staff and potentially poses a security risk.”
In regards to the Prince George Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, led by Susan Fierro, her office has also seen an increase in workloads tied to an uptick in felony and misdemeanor charges and the addition of another general district court judge during 2019. In data provided by her office, workloads have increased across the board.
When looking at the first nine months of 2019 in the county’s general district court, the number of criminal show cause filings and traffic capius filings rose by 11 and 19 percent when compared to the same timeframe in 2018, while felony charge filings in that rose by less than four percent.
The greatest increase came in the area of felony charges against adult offenders in the county’s JDR court with a nearly 40 percent increase in 2019 over 2018’s total. As a result of attorney staffing shortages, Fierro’s office has had to make decisions regarding their prosecution efforts, based on a report from the county.
“The Commonwealth Attorney’s office is no longer handling many cases brought by the Virginia State Police,” specifically “Class 1 and 2 misdemeanor cases brought by state troopers,” the report detailed. “The general district court adjusted its schedule when a judge was added and the traffic docket was move to Thursday, when circuit court is in session,” which has created a conflict for the office.
The report continued, “The Commonwealth Attorney is no longer prosecuting driving on a suspended license, no operator’s license, reckless driving (high speeds), and possession of marijuana,” noting, “this has likely led to increased jail time, appointment of defense attorneys, and defendants not being diverted to the Litter Reduction Program, all of which result in increased costs.”
The third department that will be receiving benefits from the county’s actions is the garage as supervisors’ vote last month allows for a new apparatus technician to be brought on and a currently employed mechanic to be converted to an apparatus technician as the number in an effort to reduce the number of hours or days an apparatus or emergency vehicle is out of service, while also supporting routine and preventative maintenance on the fleet.
Currently, according to county records, there are over 50 pieces of fire apparatus and speciality fire vehicles in operation in the county, which include nine medic units. At the time of the board’s vote, the county employed “one properly trained, experienced technician to service and repair these vehicles,” along with being responsible for “other various heavy duty work, in-depth diesel and pump repairs, ladder repairs, 12, 110, and 220-volt repairs, as well as many other speciality equipment repairs that require special training to accurately perform.”
“If more than one unit needs service or repairs, the one qualified technician … must prioritize which units are to be serviced first, while other units must be put on hold or sent to outside vendors, which can cost the county in outside labor/parts charges and result in increased downtime,” the report detailed, adding the technician also needs to travel throughout the county to fire station to conduct repairs and transport out-of-service vehicles.
That scenario came to life in September of last year when an apparent fuel mix-up saw two of the county’s diesel fuel tanks becoming contaminated with gasoline, resulting in several units requiring that fuel to be extracted and a complete inspection of all of the county’s fire and EMS apparatus, taking many units out of service for a portion of the day.
It was county fleet management staff at the garage that determined the fuel mixup and led the response to the issue, resulting in some stations being brought back online in less than an hour after the first report of vehicle issues.
At the time of their vote early last month, supervisors had yet to hold a work session ahead of their work starting on the 2021 fiscal year budget and, for Supervisor T.J. Webb, the eventual adoption of the new positions means funding will need to be allocated to support them in the upcoming year’s budget.
“Not that these positions are not needed, the concern I have is that we haven’t had our first budget work session yet so we are kind of looking at a crystal ball and we are adding to our bottom line and we haven’t established a budget yet,” he remarked. “So you are coming out of the gate with $109,000.”
Dovetailing off Webb’s comments, Vice-Chairman Floyd Brown, Jr. asked county staff if they intended to continue their pursuit of state compensation board funding to help offset the costs of the new positions, to which deputy county administrator Betsy Drewry said she was “sure that Sheriff H.E. Allin, III, and Madam Commonwealth’s Attorney Fierro are more than happy to include that request again,” noting that statewide funding didn’t permit the positions to be funded in the current budget at the time of its adoption, resulting in it being removed and set aside for later consideration midway through the year.
The board did have the option presented to them to use contingency funds – of which $35,699 remains – to pay for the positions, with the remaining $74,129 coming from the county’s undesignated fund balance. After some discussion, supervisors agreed to leave the contingency funds untouched and to allocate it all from fund balance.
According to Drewry in an unrelated interview following last month’s meeting, the county currently has $21.5 million remaining in its uncommitted fund balance. As of June 30, 2019, the county’s fund balance totaled $23.9 million, with roughly $2.4 million in funding being allocated to a number of projects, including $1 million being allocated to Prince George County Public Schools to allow them to begin the design and engineering phase of developing a new elementary school and $704,000 as part of the school system’s carryover funding request.
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