Lewis County ballot issue pushes for school safety

Students at Highland High School stop at their lockers in between class periods Thursday. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: Mar. 29, 2013 7:59 am Updated: Apr. 19, 2013 10:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

The recent massacre in Newtown, Conn., and a strained Sheriff's Department budget has inspired a sales tax referendum April 2 in Lewis County.

The proposal to increase the county sales tax 0.25 percent would generate an estimated $130,000 a year. The tax would fund another full-time jailer at the Lewis County Jail, school safety initiatives and the additional reserve deputies.

The tax would also help pay for a sheriff's deputy to serve as a school resource officer for the Lewis County R-1 School District. If the tax passed, the School District would fund 50 percent of the resource officer's salary.

Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish said a decrease in compensation to house state prisoners has limited the money the department can spend on school safety and jail personnel. He hopes the voters recognize the gaps in protection and support the tax referendum.

Parrish said the $19.50 daily rate that the state provides per prisoner doesn't cover the medical expenses, clothing, food and transportation services that inmates require. He estimated that in a year, the state falls $70,000 short of what Lewis County needs to cover expenses for inmates. He said the department makes up for the shortfall by cutting funds typically reserved for school protection, jail personnel and department vehicles.

"We've looked at how we responded to things and how we need to make a change," Parrish said. "Quite frankly, we've had to work harder at keeping people out of jail than keeping people in."

The jail averages 12 prisoners a day and can hold a maximum of 18. Currently, the jail has three full-time jailers. The jail has employed part-time jailers to save on costs.

Parrish said the county has discussed the possibility of closing the jail and sending prisoners to other counties. However, he has tried to avoid that so the jail jobs and tax dollars can stay in Lewis County.

Lewis County C-1 School District Superintendent Jacqueline Ebeling said the Sheriff's Department has checked the school campuses each day since the December massacre in Newtown. Parrish said the Canton R-V School District has worked on safety issues with the Canton Police Department.

Even with Sheriff's Department attention to the school, Ebeling believes the 11-mile distance from the Highland schools to the department in Monticello is too far in an immediate emergency.

"I can tell you there were many sleepless nights about thinking that Lewis County C-1 is not in town," Ebeling said. "We are out in the country."

The sheriff's deputy would serve as a prime resource during emergencies. Ebeling said the measure wouldn't prevent tragedy but the schools would be better-equipped should one occur.

In addition to emergency services, the officer would handle student absences, physical conflicts, the DARE program and student substance abuse. The deputy also eventually might lead school safety classes and participate in CPR training.

"You don't put a price tag on a kid," Ebeling said. "Whatever it (the cost) comes to, that's insignificant."