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Sheriff requests $250,000 to create traffic unit

Council to take up funding at special meeting today

Posted: January 6, 2011 5:11 p.m.
Updated: January 7, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Five hours after being sworn in Tuesday, Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews asked Kershaw County Council for extra money to create a new traffic enforcement unit and enhanced victims advocate services. Matthews made the requests during a “State of the Sheriff’s Office” report he gave to Kershaw County Council before a crowd of more than 100 people.

The bottom line: Matthews said he needs nearly $250,000 to create a traffic enforcement unit to crack down on people driving under the influence (DUI), speeding excessively and driving recklessly. The money -- one possibility is to use cash reserves -- would pay for four new deputies and four fully-equipped patrol cars.

“I believe this unit will fund itself and even generate a surplus,” said Matthews, noting in an appendix to his report that Lee County was able to generate more than $600,000 in net revenue from fines between July 2008 and June 2009. “These officers will concentrate their efforts on I-20, the DUI problem areas and the rural areas where ‘excessive’ speeding occurs.”

They would not, he said, concern themselves with minor traffic violations -- rolling through stop signs, speeding less than 10-15 mph over posted limits -- and would begin their enforcement by writing a lot of warnings.

“Basically, all I’m asking for is a traffic unit … a very minimal increase. I’m not trying to build an empire,” Matthews said, likely in response to county resident Jeff Mattox who made a presentation ahead of Matthews urging council not to fund any KCSO increases.

Mattox said not doing so would “break the cycle of government growth and a movement toward a police state.”

Matthews, however, said Kershaw County has the third-highest DUI-related fatality rate in the state yet claimed deputies have virtually conducted no traffic stops. He also said statistics show an increasing number of accidents due to excessive speeding, including through school zones.

Later, following Matthews’ report, Councilman Jimmy Jones produced a copy of a memorandum of understanding signed by Matthews before he took office. In the memorandum, Matthews agrees -- in return for Jones’ support of increased funding -- to make any new programs “revenue neutral” by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

If the additional personnel and increased expenditures don’t result in an equal increase in revenue, Matthews has promised not to ask for additional revenue to cover new positions in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

“The sheriff is not asking to raise new taxes,” Jones announced. “Now that’s a promise in writing. I think this needs to be addressed immediately. He’s shown us how he can do this without raising new taxes or fees.”

Some confusion followed about whether Matthews was formally asking for the increase Tuesday night. Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr. expressed a desire to see the request go through the normal channel of council’s finance committee and then taken up at a subsequent meeting. Tucker lost the sheriff’s race to Matthews in the general election.

Councilman Bobby Gary asked what the sheriff’s office budget was and how much was left for the remainder of the current fiscal year. Outgoing Kershaw County Administrator Clay Young said the KCSO is allotted a $3.9 million budget. Finance Director Crystal Burr said that with more than half the fiscal year gone, less than 50 percent of that budget remained. She said she did not believe it would cover Matthews’ request.

“Clearly this is an issue that needs to go through the finance committee,” Councilman Stephen Smoak said. “It’s not my intent to stall, but this is a serious matter. I’m very supportive of the sheriff’s ideas, but I have a long list of questions.”

Smoak said he felt three weeks was enough time to collect the necessary information so council “could make a better decision.”

Discussion then turned to where the money for Matthews’ traffic unit might come from.

That was when Young said it was possible to take the funds from the cash reserve.

New District 6 Councilman Tom Gardner said he felt the move would be a good trade off.

“You’re asking for $248,000 and estimating more than $600,000 revenue each year,” Gardner said. “I think that’s a good investment. I don’t want Kershaw County to be a speed trap, but if you’re going 15 miles over the speed limit, you need a ticket.”

Councilman C.R. Miles asked whether “fully equipped” vehicles would have radar. Matthews said he was making requests from other agencies for radars at no cost. He estimated each is worth about $2,000.

Gary pointed out the county would be using tax funds to get the traffic unit started which Jones said sounded like a “no-brainer” to him in this case.

“I’m going to do what I think is best, but will continue to stand on principal of not raising taxes. I commend Sheriff Matthews for his request tonight,” said Jones.

Victim advocates

Matthews also asked Tuesday that the bulk of $544,000 in existing victims advocate funds be disbursed to him in order to enhance that service at the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO). Matthews said he wants to reassign four personnel to a special victims advocate unit and require investigators who are assigned to property crimes to spend a set percentage of their time performance victims assistance duties to the victims of those crimes. Matthews asked that the salaries, vehicles and training of those investigators come from the victims assistance fund.

He said victims advocate work was too much for one person to handle.

“I believe that this fund has grown to this size because of the very stringent regulations and the fact that there was simply no one at the sheriff’s office with the experience or expertise in monitoring the victims advocate program,” said Matthews. “Currently, there are inadequate policies, procedures and training for victims advocate personnel.”

Matthews said he would have his new administration director, Tracey Hunt, act as a victims advocate coordinator. She would then make sure officers were trained on and in compliance with victims advocate statutes.

“We will follow the law to the letter,” Matthews said.

With his request, Matthews vehemently opposed any attempt to provide more victims advocate funds to the Kershaw County Magistrates Office. It is investigators, he said, not magistrate court employees, who know what is happening about a case at any stage, and, therefore, the only people who could effectively communicate with victims.

“If my portion of that fund is cut, I won’t be able to offer the level of victims advocacy that the people of Kershaw County have never experienced before,” said Matthews, adding that the executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council has called the magistrate’s office “merely a notifier.”

He said he was told the magistrates office was required to maintain a “very neutral position by not favoring either a victim or merely a defendant.”

“For these reasons, it is my position as sheriff to vehemently oppose granting any victims assistance funds to the magistrates office for any reason,” Matthews said. “There is no need to fund the hiring of a separate magistrate’s office victims assistance employee … when the investigator on the case will be at (hearings) and can notify the victim himself.”

Matthews also claimed an audit conducted earlier this year showed the KCSO was misusing funds and had no procedures to track and account for actual victims assistance work.

He said the same audit determined the magistrate’s office was taking an “incorrect percentage” of the victims advocate funds, depositing them to its own account.

That set up something of a showdown between Matthews and Chief Magistrate Gene Hartis, who followed with a report of his own.

Hartis said he was asking for a small portion of the victims advocate funds: $18,000 to finish out the fiscal year, and $34,000 for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. What bothered him most, he said, was Matthews’ claim that advocacy money was inappropriately being used by the magistrates office.

“The audit showed an error going into the account,” Matthews asserted from his seat.

Hartis said another audit was being launched Wednesday.

“If that (accusation) is not so, then I expect an apology from you,” Hartis told Matthews, turning around to him.

“If that’s not the case, then you will have it,” Matthews agreed.

Hartis went on to assert that, based on victims advocate guidelines, he is entitled to an advocate, especially since the court docket is growing -- and likely to grow as Matthews cracks down on traffic and other crimes.

“Sheriff Matthews and I need to work together on this,” said Hartis. “I’m not trying to take the whole $544,000, just my portion for a victims advocate.”

Problems, solutions

Matthews’ two monetary requests came at the end of a lengthy report delineating a host of problems he said he wants to correct at the KCSO.

The first thing Matthews mentioned was the fact that, currently, only six deputies per shift cover the 740 square miles of land and water that make up Kershaw County.

“Six deputies only allows them to go call-to-call, run around the county and write reports,” said Matthews. “That’s not acceptable to residents. People living in the northern part of the county have nothing good to say about law enforcement. Lancaster has 12 deputies per shift within a similar geographic area.”

To help, Matthews said he would be assigning resident deputies to shifts, increasing them by one deputy each, allowing the KCSO to place deputies in the northern end of the county on a full-time basis.

Matthews also said it was hard to recruit and keep deputies and supervisors when starting pay is at $29,500.

The new sheriff said the state of his fleet of patrol cars is “dismal.”

“We have 77 vehicles. Twenty-six of them have between 100,000 and 150,000 miles on them; 17 have between 150,000 and 200,000 miles; four have more than 200,000 miles while another two have more than 250,000,” said Matthews.

He said vehicle age is important to consider because the county’s vehicle maintenance contract calls for an increase in fees for cars more than 6 years old.

“I don’t know how they got into this condition, but I suspect it was a combination of mismanagement, poor policies and a lack of communication,” Matthews said. “I’ve been told that Kershaw County wrecks more patrol cars than any other county in the state. We are going to institute a new pursuit policy. I’ve also had numerous complaints of vehicles being used to take family vacations and move furniture out of the county. There’s been a very liberal policy that has led to excessive mileage and liability issues.”

Matthews also addressed the need to end so-called “Chinese overtime” where deputies have been paid less than their hourly rate for working overtime, instead of the standard time-and-a-half.

“It has a negative impact on recruitment,” he said.

Matthews said he intends to improve the KCSO’s evidence keeping procedures.

“(They are) inadequate to the point of neglect,” said Matthews, adding that the state has implemented new, “draconian” evidence procedures. “Simply put, all evidence … must be maintained until the defendant, if incarcerated, is ultimately released from prison. This will result in the necessity to maintain custody and control of evidence for years, thus producing a long-term storage requirement.”

As for narcotics, Matthews said that unit has “basically been non-existent” for the past several months. Prior to that, he said, it focused almost exclusively on street-level users and dealers, something he said has been confirmed by other agencies. He told council his deputies have already moved to correct that perception.

But, he said, some solicitors have declined to prosecute drug cases in Kershaw County because of the procedures used by KCSO narcotics investigators.

Matthews also informed council that the KCSO’s radio system is not compatible with any other agency in Kershaw County or agencies in adjoining jurisdictions.

“The Department of Homeland Security is requiring that emergency service agencies be able to talk to each other. The FCC has mandated that this take place by Dec. 31, 2012. The (KCSO) has taken no steps whatsoever to be in compliance with this directive.”

Later in the meeting, Young reported the county had received a $784,000 grant, requiring a $96,000 match, to fund a massive two-way radio upgrade for all the county’s fire stations, the public works department, Elgin Police Department and other agencies. Young pointed out, as Matthews had, that the KCSO was not part of the grant. Matthews said he would immediately be seeking other grants to begin coming into compliance.

Matthews then returned to the matter of personnel. He said there have been very few qualifications required to be a deputy. He claimed some deputies had used crack cocaine or smoked marijuana during the previous 10 years.

“We have identified deputies who are so physically unfit as to be physically unable to defend themselves or a citizen,” Matthews said. “We have identified personnel with psychological issues and who cannot write a report above a sixth grade level. We have also identified personnel with job-related injuries that should require that they be medically retired.”

All of that, said Matthews, would be corrected over time under his command.

Specifically, Matthews said he wants to:

• Write and implement a new policies and procedures manual that would reduce civil liability, address deputy pursuits and the personal use of vehicles.

• Formalize the command staff structure (with appropriate pay scale) where better customer service would be demanded and performance evaluations conducted.

• Create the position of an internal affairs investigator who would randomly follow up with citizens who have had contact with deputies.

• Require minimum hiring standards regarding education, fitness, drug history and report writing ability..

• Provide time for deputy, investigator and supervisor training -- for free -- from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy and other sources.

• Seek a grant for new laptops for all deputies and installation of Lawtrak software. Matthews said this would bring the KCSO in reporting compliance with SLED and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and could interface with the Camden and Elgin police departments. He estimated there would be a $60,000 up-front cost with $9,000 in annual maintenance expenditures.

• Partner with other agencies’ narcotics units to maximize efforts and require random drug tests of narcotics officers. He said he wants to go after high-level dealers while also dealing with street-level activity. “It is my information from outside agencies that there are currently several large scale, untouched narcotics trafficking operations taking place right now in Kershaw County,” said Matthews. “I can’t elaborate, but I will join with other agencies to attack this problem.”

• Create a Community Action Team (CAT) which would proactively respond to complaints of drug, gang and other criminal activity in neighborhoods. “They conduct surveillance, identify the problem and aggressively act on it within the legal confines of the law. Upon completion, the CAT supervisor will contact the complainant and details to them the results of their enforcement operations,” said Matthews. He said while the program is a “must,” he was not asking for CAT unit funding due to budgetary constraints and would seek grant funds instead.

• Work with council to find a way to purchase eight to 10 new patrol cars, over time, so as to rotate out high-mileage vehicles.

In conclusion, Matthews agreed that he was not in favor of putting the county in the position of raising taxes.

But, he said, “the voters spoke loudly in the election -- we must stay ahead of the criminal element. I’m fully aware of keeping taxes down; that’s why I’m not asking for everything I want.”

Sheriff Jim Matthews gave the department he took over Tuesday a “D-minus.”

“I want to get it to a ‘C-plus’ during my first term and, eventually, to an ‘A.’”

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, new Council Chairman Gene Wise asked who would be available to attend a special meeting at 8 a.m. today to discuss and vote on Matthews’ traffic enforcement request. All but Tucker indicated they could. Hartis was expected to attend as well.

Council’s finance committee was scheduled to meet Thursday morning to discussed the matter, with Matthews and Hartis attending.

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