By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Aug. 7 — Neither side thinks the other understands. Both sides are calling for better communication. And both blame the other for the confusion and not dealing with the reoccurring problem.
The same drama has played out for four of the last five years between the Page County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Chad Cubbage. The sheriff has consistently gone over budget for four of the five budget cycles since being elected in 2015, while the supervisors continue to repeatedly request the sheriff to deal with budget shortfalls sooner and make adjustments, rather than simply reporting a deficit at the end of the fiscal year.
“These are issues we have visited before, and some things have to get settled. Trying to play catch up all the time is not acceptable,” Board Chairman Morgan Phenix said at the onset of the discussion.
“There seems to be an attitude… [the sheriff’s office] can do what we want because we can make it up somewhere. If you overspend in one area, it’s going to cause a shortfall somewhere else,” Dr. Phenix stated during the meeting. “I think you’re always borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.”
Sheriff Cubbage was clearly agitated at the onslaught of comments and questions from the supervisors on Tuesday night, stating they simply don’t understand law enforcement and “what it takes to keep the people of this county safe.”
“There is a lot of budget overages that are not in my control,” the sheriff told the board. “I have explained it to you year after year; it’s the same thing over and over, year after year. I make decisions… we don’t need someone with no public safety experience telling us how to run our department, when we’ve got over 100 years of experience on our staff.”
It is not unusual for the sheriff’s office to have more trouble than other departments staying within the funding allotted within a given fiscal year due to unforeseen expenses, such as a fluctuating inmate population and inmate medical expenses, among other things. Previous sheriffs have had similar problems and offered similar explanations as Cubbage.
Since taking office in 2016, Sheriff Cubbage has spent between $100,000 to $400,000 beyond what was approved and appropriated for the department, with the exception of FY2017.
For the 2020 fiscal year, the sheriff’s office actually reduced its annual request from the county by $123,000, bringing the sheriff’s budget from about $7.4 million down to $7.3 million. However, the county did not fully fund the department’s request for $330,000 in capital projects. Instead they allocated $156,000 toward those projects, and an additional $30,000 to fund a Medicaid program coordinator position at the jail.
At the conclusion of FY2020 on June 30, the Page County Sheriff’s Office had overspent its annual budget by $269,113.21. The department’s budget represents around 10 percent of the total county budget.
The biggest ticket item on the list of deficit spending was the Page County Jail. Cubbage is quick to point out that the county jail is consistently crowded, and according to a report issued earlier this year, the facility is lacking 14 positions it needs to operate more efficiently. That, in part, is what lead to $117,941.91 in overspending on salaries (including overtime and part-time), according to the sheriff.
In addition to the ordinary annual expenses, the local jail also experienced several unforeseen costs that added up quickly. Medical expenses increased when four pregnant female inmates were incarcerated locally, including two who were addicted to drugs. The county had to foot the bill for trips to a nearby methadone clinic for both the mother and their unborn babies to be treated and go through withdrawal. The sheriff’s office ended up going $61,000 over budget to cover inmate medical expenses last fiscal year.
Then came COVID-19. The sheriff had to transport some inmates out of the local facility — at a greater expense — in order to create room in the Page County Jail for both isolation and quarantine areas, as mandated by law. He also had to create room for new inmates when other facilities stopped taking them after the state ruled inmates could no longer be transported between different jails in order to control the spread of the coronavirus.
The supervisors did include an additional $300,000 in the sheriff’s FY2021 budget to help cover additional costs at the jail.
“And we are very appreciative of that,” Major Pete Monteleone said on Thursday. “That will help — but until we take a corrective action on the jail [longterm], it will continue to be an issue like this.”
Sheriff Cubbage touts the operations at the jail despite a lack of funding by noting the four consecutive 100-percent ratings the jail has received on 180 standards in annual state DOC audits under his administration.
The sheriff said the reason the jail population has risen during his tenure — from a previous average of less than 100 to a peak of 225 inmates in mid-2018 — is because of heightened drug use and tougher enforcement.
“We have really been proactive in drug enforcement in our community because it’s the No.1 thing the community asks us to crack down on,” Cubbage said. “We have a zero-tolerance policy.”
However, the jail is not the only problem with overspending. Among other issues with the sheriff’s budget discussed on Tuesday:
- $21,000 never received in payment from Cooter’s Place for security provided at the 40th anniversary celebration “Good Ole Boys Fest” at the Shenandoah Speedway nearly a year ago (county EMS has not been paid for the event either);
- More than $18,000 in overtime and salaries related to COVID-19 spent over budget;
- $16,127 over budget for vehicle repairs;
- $9,964 over budget for fuel;
- $9,000 not budgeted to move the VCIN room (related to the Emergency Operations Center controversy and mandated by the county);
- More than $9,000 over budget for uniforms (due to turnover);
- $8,458 over budget for a new telecommunications system in vehicles;
- $8,402 lost because the sheriff did not attend compensation board training.
Cubbage also stated that changes at the courthouse, due to COVID-19 and an increased court schedule, have increased the need for more staff there — leading to more overtime and part-time pay coming out of his budget.
“He keeps saying it’s his budget… it’s the taxpayers money,” District 1 Supervisor Keith Guzy said during Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a matter of you working the budget, and not letting the budget work you.”
On Tuesday night, Cubbage walked out after less than an hour of questioning by county supervisors. Two days after the meeting, the sheriff specifically cited the tone of questioning by Guzy as his reason for walking out.
“This meeting is over,” Cubbage declared to the board shortly before walking out of the room on Tuesday, followed by more than two dozen deputies that attended the meeting. The deputies had to stand in the hallway during the discussion because COVID-19 restrictions only allowed 10 people to sit in on the meeting.
“We need to communicate. We need to not end meetings the way he did tonight. If we continue to end meetings the way he did tonight, then we’ll never get anywhere,” District 5 Supervisor Jeff Vaughn said after Cubbage’s abrupt departure.
“We are not defunding the police or anything like that, but there needs to be more accountability and communication. We’ve got to require his department to be more transparent,” Vaughn continued. “It’s the responsibility of the sheriff to come to the county administrator when they have these [budget] problems. Right now, we’re not managing problems.”
A key issue that got Cubbage the most heated was the board’s decision to not fund a 3-percent pay increase for deputies, while other county employees will receive the pay raise.
“That is wrong,” Cubbage told the board. “Nothing against the other people in other departments, but [the deputies] are risking their lives every day… and everyone else is getting a 3-percent raise, and they are not? Shame on any board member that would not support them.”
The board chairman responded by saying, “This is what happens when you want to please everyone. Chad, it’s not just a matter of getting people to feel good about working for you. It’s about managing your budget.”
After the sheriff left the room, Dr. Phenix later added, “Mismanagement and misadministration led to not getting a 3-percent raise for his staff. His budget person is gone, and I don’t think anyone has been watching the budget very closely.”
“I’m very concerned about this department because the people that knew these finances are gone,” Vaughn added. “We have some derailing here that needs to be addressed.”
When asked about additional spending to help provide security at a BLM protest at an Elkton park in June that the neighboring town was never charged for, Cubbage responded, “We were asked by the Elkton Police Department to provide help for a couple of hours one evening. That’s the right thing to do. Don’t start charging when it comes to protecting people’s lives.”
Cubbage utilized 15 men for four hours at the Rockingham County event.
When asked about the overage in uniforms and some overtime due to a wave of turnover within the department over the last year, Cubbage said, “The problem was entitlement,” in reference to staff members who were let go. “People were not doing their jobs, so I made some changes.”
When asked about the $8,402 lost due to his absence for compensation board training, the sheriff responded, “I take full responsibility for that.”
On that issue, Vaughn later said, “That should come from his salary… don’t take that away from your staff.”
After months of battling over the management of the county’s Emergency Operations Center, recent meetings between the sheriff and County Administrator Amity Moler have been good, according to both parties.
“We’re going to put the work in on our end,” Monteleone said Thursday of improving communications with the county.
“I want better communication with the county,” Cubbage said Thursday, “but I’m not going to let them insult me or my deputies.”
CARES Act funding should relieve some of the sheriff’s deficit related to COVID-19. A total of $22,898.98 has been reimbursed by the county for supplies purchased by the sheriff’s office, and more will potentially be made available to cover overtime related to the pandemic.
Just as it has been for nearly five years, the sheriff believes that the supervisors simply don’t understand the many demands and uncertainties of public safety, while the supervisors seem to believe that the sheriff can’t manage his $7 million budget.
And, in a sort of standoff, both sides echoed the sentiment and tone that Dr. Phenix shared with the sheriff before his abrupt exit when he said, “You’re not bullying me.”