By Billy Davis
Panola County supervisors, staring down a $500,000 budget deficit, were tag-teamed by the county sheriff and his chief deputy who apparently sensed coming cuts to the sheriff’s department budget.
Supervisors never directly requested that Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright trim his budget – “We’re not asking for cuts to personnel and equipment,” board president Gary Thompson finally told the pair.
But that didn’t prevent Bright and Chief Deputy Otis Griffin from sermonizing about the demanding and thankless job performed by deputies, and the dangers they face from the public.
Griffin described “bad areas” in the county, where the residents there deserve police protection, and he offered to show supervisors the areas he was describing.
“You can go for a ride any time,” the sheriff told supervisors.
“Any time,” Griffin added.
“They’re shooting real bullets out there,” Griffin said. “It’s not like when I was young. There’s no respect for the law.”
The sheriff’s department, followed by the road department, are the two costliest departments in Panola County government.
The sheriff’s department is operating with a $2.2 million budget, about $70,000 more than the previous fiscal year, county figures show.
The new sheriff’s budget reflects a $50,000 cut in gasoline budget, which was raised to $250,000 last year when gas prices had peaked.
The budget had also included $95,000 for three vehicle purchases, which has also been removed. Drug-seized funds will pay for that purchase, the sheriff said.
Supervisors also pointed out the requested budget includes $100,000 for overtime pay, which the sheriff said is used mostly for his on-call investigators.
Budget figures show the sheriff’s budget has risen $346,000 in three years, which is partly due to new deputy hirings that now give the county 24-hour coverage.
Sheriff Bright also oversees jail operations at the sheriff’s department. Figures show the jail budget has jumped $443,433 over the previous year. Most of that expense comes from payments for a new addition to the jail, the sheriff said.
Reimbursements from the state for housing state prisoners will help offset the expense, he said, though he acknowledged that the payments are coming sporadically from the cash-strapped state government.
Bright’s remarks mirrored comments he made last year, when he threatened to send deputies home if the budget was cut. This time, however the topic never bubbled to a confrontation and the sheriff eventually strolled out of the boardroom as the topic wound down.
“I appreciate y’all,” the sheriff told supervisors before he left.
Supervisors last summer were facing a millage raise, and Bright was forced by then-County Administrator David Chandler to trim his budget request by $100,000.
Most questioning Wednesday was done by Supervisor Kelly Morris, who quizzed the sheriff about the number of deputies working per shift.
The sheriff’s department operates four work shifts with five deputies per shift, the sheriff said. That number sometimes drops to three deputies per shift due to vacations and sickness, he said.
The sheriff, answering a second question from Morris, acknowledged that deputies are rarely called out at night due to the beefed-up patrols.
Administrator Kelley Magee has suggested that some sheriff’s department employees stop driving vehicles home to save on fuel and maintenance. Morris’ questioning seemed to point toward that suggestion, but it was never stated or discussed.
Magee has also suggested clamping down on cell phone use, using detailed cell phone bills to show questionable use of airtime minutes. That topic was not broached either.
“We’re not against you, Shot,” Morris said at one point. “We’ve got a budget we’ve got to work with, and it’s a tight budget.”
“We’re cutting every day,” Bright said of department expenses.