Last week's budget presentation by Sheriff Larry Smith to the Smith County Commissioners Court produced far more questions than answers, due to its unusual nature. Smith's requests for the coming year were made outside of the traditional budget process, in a public meeting, with an audience filled of supporters.
The tone of the meeting caused us to wonder if the environment of mutual respect with which the county has operated in recent years is at risk.
And so we requested a meeting with both Sheriff Smith and County Judge Joel Baker, the county's chief budget officer, to learn what we could about both the numbers and the process.
Those meetings left us encouraged and hopeful that dialogue on the budget can be conducted appropriately and professionally.
On the numbers, it's clear to us that much more communication needs to take place between the sheriff and the county judge. It's imperative that they find solutions that reconcile the budget figures, and don't pit some county employees against others, or result in the perception that anyone in this county doesn't support law enforcement.
Because that's simply not the case. We all support law enforcement, and we're mindful of the invaluable service they provide to protect the citizens of this county.
We can remember times when dialogue among members of the Commissioners Court was acrimonious and unproductive. But the court has made great strides in many respects to — including facilities management and the new jail.
Are there improvements that can be made to make things better for our law enforcement officers? It would seem that current policy with respect to compensation inhibits the ability of the sheriff to hire people based on experience or qualifications. A policy change may be in order.
We hope that all sides are mindful of an important pledge commissioners made in 2011, when as part of their commitment to voters when they asked for the approval of a jail bond package, they said they would put all profits earned from housing federal prisoners toward paying down the jail bond debt. Voters approved that bond package a few weeks after that pledge was signed. And they'll hold commissioners to it.
Baker and Smith have indicated a strong desire to return the process to an environment of mutual respect.
We hope both can continue to contribute to the solid gains made by the county in recent years.