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Morrow's Sorrows: The County Faces Hard Times and Tough Decisions

Many of Ohio's counties face budgetary difficulty right now, and Morrow County is no different. Its commissioners have asked county employees to take two weeks off without pay before the end of the year to help close the budget gap - and the county's sheriff said the jail may have to close.

It's about 12:30 in the afternoon and a few people straggle in and out of the Grill and Chill - an ice cream and sandwich shop just down the street from the center of town and the courthouse.

Six months ago the Grill and Chill - even during wintertime - would have been crowded at this time of the day. But owner Belisa Sherman said many local employees' who had paid lunch hours at one time do not any more. And she said that cut her lunch revenue in half.

"All the cut backs here in town and stuff it's also hurt the local businesses. As far as lunch breaks and stuff they got cut from their lunch breaks. So now they just basically bring a bag lunch. You know, so that hurt all around," Sherman said.

The cuts Sherman speaks of are those made at the county level. Recently Morrow County Commissioners asked about 200 employees to take ten furlough days before the end of the year. Commissioners say that would save the county about $120,000 - in turn helping to balance the county's $6.5 million budget.

Not far from the Chill and Grill is the County Commissioner's Office. On the door is a notice: "effective Monday, March 2, 2009 the Morrow County Commissioner's Office will be...closed all day on Friday." Most county agencies went to four-day work weeks in an effort to save money. Olen Jackson has been a county commissioner for 13 years and he saids this is the worst he's seen.

"Maybe it's the 13 that's unlucky."

Jackson said if every employee who has been asked to take ten days without pay agrees, the savings will barely be enough to carry the county through the end of the year, - and that does not count the sheriff's department. Jackson does not know where that money's going to come from. Morrow County depends heavily on sales tax for its revenue. And Jackson said it's a struggle. He said Morrow County is close to some larger cities that offer better shopping - so local dollars go elsewhere. Jackson said June's sales tax revenue was down 18 percent. And to make matters worse, the commissioner said Chrysler and GM each just closed a dealership in town.

Even with all of this looming, Jackson seems more concerned about what he calls "the really dark cloud" - the 2010 budget. "Unfortunately the budget commission has given us a number right now of $5.8 million. (For 2010?) For 2010. $5.8 million with no carry over from 2009. I think at this point in time we can declare a crisis," Jackson said. When asked about a rainy day fund Jackson said it's gone.

"Rainy day fund has been expended for the past two years. Uh, you know, we came to the end of the year and the sheriff's department was basically short of funds and we were able to use that money to keep them going. But that money has ran out, and at this point in time, no, there is no rainy day fund," the commissioner said.

About a mile down the road is the Morrow County Sheriff's Department and jail. Steven Brenneman is the sheriff. He laid off about 15 people and lost many more to attrition.

"We're operating with I believe twelve people in the jail, total. And my staffing there should be closer to 30. Right now I have three full-time dispatcher and that should be seven. I've got nine road officers including supervisors. But I have a couple of them on leave, I've got one on vacation, I've got one that actually works a grant. So we're barely covering there," he noted.

Brenneman said they've cut back on everything they can possibly cut from the layoffs, to furloughs and even office supplies. The sheriff said the next cuts will be drastic - and maybe as soon as next week.

"Right now we are seriously contemplating whether or not I have to shut the jail completely down here and lay off the rest of my corrections staff because we do not have enough money to operate it the rest of the year. But yet I got to keep the office here open and the budget pays the utilities and heating and lighting and that type of thing here and we have to maintain enough money to do that," Brenneman said. Shutting down the jail will be a catch-22. While it will save on the sheriff department's budget the inmates have to be housed somewhere. And Brenneman said that money will have to come from the county.

Back at the Chill and Grill three co-workers from the Maple Run Veterinary Clinic gather around a table for some lunch. Worker Lori McClain says it saddens her to see the county in such hardship.

"You just see the hard times hitting your neighbors, and your friends being laid off and that kind of thing. It does affect almost every person here in the county that you know," McClain said.