- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2009

LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. | Eyes watery, throat raw and sniffling back a runny nose, Jessica Whitlow left the comfort of her bed and dragged herself to work last week in the nerve center of Brunswick County’s modern but crowded jail.

She would sit there at least 12 hours as she does every shift, one of two people who scan computer monitors and juggle emergency calls for problems as diverse as tanker blasts and kitchen grease fires. Whenever 911 is dialed in the sprawling county, Miss Whitlow and her shiftmate answer it, even during restroom breaks with wireless headsets.

“My two dispatchers page out everything in the county,” Sheriff Brian K. Roberts said. “All seven volunteer fire departments, all three volunteer rescue departments, all three municipal [police departments], and the sheriff’s office and the state police.

“All my people work 12-hour shifts,” he said.

It’s a numbing half-day of high stress in a seat where lapses can cost lives. The day can be twice as long if the next shift calls in sick. So, still recovering from bronchitis, Miss Whitlow reported for duty in the freezing early morning.

That’s life in a department stretched to the ripping point, where thin staffs force long days, nights and weekends, and Brunswick County isn’t unique.

“We do everything, and we can’t afford to lose anything,” said Charlotte County Sheriff Thomas D. Jones.

In rural, urban and suburban communities, sheriffs are alarmed. They’re telling all who will listen that state budget cuts of $72 million endanger the safety net for the people who run every local jail, guard every courthouse and, in 86 localities, keep the peace and enforce the law.

“Last year, we saw double-digit increases in property crimes and armed robberies. On the civil side, we saw double … the number of evictions,” said Sheriff Charles Jett of Stafford County, one of the state’s fastest-growing, who expects to lose 14 people from his staff.

“Law enforcement is a core service that cannot be compromised,” Sheriff Jett said last week.

But the Virginia government’s tax collections are at least $3 billion short of spending budgeted a year ago. Twice since then, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, has ordered cuts, and now it’s up to lawmakers to balance the budget despite the deepest recession in decades.

The governor and legislators in both parties have said schools, health care and even law enforcement - held harmless in previous tough times - must now be fair game.

The slim hope of avoiding sharp cuts lies with the prospect of federal support in the $800 billion-plus stimulus package now before the U.S. Senate.

Sheriff Roberts’ sunny nature and easy smile melt away when talk turns to the prospect of laying off two or three of his department’s 39 employees under a projected loss of $92,000 from the state. He said he only has two deputies in two cars to patrol Brunswick’s more than 900 miles of back roads on busy weekend nights.

“Listen, we’re a dead skeleton staff,” he said.

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