Montcalm County commissioners use contingency fund to keep court security

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 6:09 pm on Tuesday, March 27, 2012

STANTON — Court security is being kept on life support for six more months.

The Montcalm County Board of Commissioners voted 7-1 on Monday to retain court security until the end of this fiscal year by using the county’s entire $75,000 contingency fund — a reserve set aside for unplanned expenses.

Commissioner Tom Lindeman of Greenville cast the lone opposing vote.

The contingency fund will pay for six months of court security that have elapsed since last October, along with six more months of court security, ending this coming October.

Commissioners cut $400,000 from the sheriff’s department budget last autumn. When Sheriff Bill Barnwell announced that court security would be included in the cuts in order to keep 24-7 road patrol coverage, commissioners voted twice to extend court security — first until the end of last December and again until the end of this month — while they tried to find a way to keep it.

A 1 mill property tax increase proposal which would have generated $1.564 million per year for five years for the sheriff’s office failed on Feb. 28.

Controller-Administrator Chris Hyzer estimates court security costs between $65,000 and $80,000 per year to fund two court screeners and one court rover, depending on insurance costs. Commissioners will likely be forced to make even more drastic budget cuts this autumn, leaving the longterm future of court security unknown.

Barnwell, who was in the audience along with Undersheriff Mark Bellinger and other sheriff’s employees, was allowed to address the commissioners before they voted.

“The position I find myself in is not an easy one,” Barnwell said. “It’s a daunting task. October doesn’t look very good. We’re going to be cutting some hours. I won’t tell you when. We’re not going to be able to support 24-hour operations in this county. It all comes down to funding.”

Board of Commissioners Chairman Patrick Q. Carr of Lakeview voted in favor of using the contingency fund to pay for court security, but he was not without reservations.

“We’ve always tried to manage the (contingency) fund so we have a plan and don’t go broke tomorrow,” Carr said. “But we built a courthouse that’s supposed to be secure. I don’t think we have any choice but to fund it.

“Is this something we can pull off without going broke?” Carr asked Hyzer.

“We’ll tighten our belt,” Hyzer replied.

Carr continued expressing his concerns after the 7-1 vote.

“What we just did now is exactly what they (the voters) said we could do,” he said. “We found a way to pay for the (failed) millage. But I don’t think we found a way to pay for the millage. We’re levying the future. We’re taking action I’ve never seen in the time I’ve been here.”

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