A centerpiece of Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans's campaign last year was a community policing plan. It featured more deputies patrolling neighborhoods, even getting out of their squad cars and walking the beat.
New St. Mary's County Sheriff David D. Zylak (D) also had big plans. He told voters he would reorganize the department so that more experienced deputies were on the street.
Both campaign promises, though, have largely been derailed by Maryland's $2 billion budget deficit. Southern Maryland counties, like others across the state, are bracing for tough cuts in state aid and have asked law enforcement to put big projects on hold, hire fewer officers and spend less on equipment.
"It's tight times everywhere," said Charles County Sheriff Frederick E. Davis (R). "We're up against a wall."
In response, Evans (R) cut his budget request for fiscal year 2004 by $750,000, from $6.6 million to about $5.8 million. His budget now asks for four new deputies, down from eight.
Evans also scaled back his community policing plan. The eight deputies he asked for originally would have freed up other officers to form a four-person community policing team, with a sergeant as supervisor and three deputies who would have as their "beat" the northern, southern or central parts of the county.
Now, current road deputies will have to take on additional community policing responsibilities until the money for the unit is found, Evans said.
Evans acknowledged his original plan was a "bit wishful" considering the state's fiscal condition. But "we basically still need the same things for the same positions," he said.
Final budget plans will not be approved until sometime next month in all three counties. And whether the money will then exist to hire even four new deputies remains to be seen, said Calvert County Commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings).
"It's simply what the budgetary facts tell me," Hale said.
All the sheriffs said they are watching developments in the General Assembly, waiting for signs of hope. Davis said the passage of a bill to legalize slot machine gambling could help law enforcement's fiscal situation. But the bill's chances remain precarious.
In St. Mary's, Zylak is still trying to find ways to cut $671,000 from his budget request to bring it to the $17.3 million commissioners say they will approve.
To trim his budget, Zylak said the department may take out loans to buy the 17 new police cars it needs rather than pay for them outright. He also may do away with merit raises for deputies, ask the Board of Education to pay for all or part of the salaries of officers who patrol the schools and defer hiring to fill vacant positions.
The cuts come after Zylak faced a barrage of criticism for proposing a budget increase of about 33 percent, from about $15 million to $20 million. That plan included a costly proposal for four new captains who would serve at Zylak's pleasure. Zylak had said it was important to have more higher-ranking commanders because it would allow the department to change the role of a sergeant from desk duty to street patrol.
But the plan took a hit when a former department captain, James K. Raley Jr., criticized it in a Feb. 14 letter to the Enterprise, a St. Mary's County newspaper.
"Funding those positions is something that the public cannot afford," Raley wrote.
County commissioners overwhelming opposed the plan, voting it down 4 to 1 last month.
"I didn't plan on it being as tough as it was to get some of the things I planned on doing," Zylak said.
Zylak's budget still represents a 10 percent increase over last year, even as other county departments are being held to 2 percent increases.
Even Charles County Sheriff Davis is facing a fiscal pinch. Davis has more than doubled his budget since 1994, and his $29.7 million budget is more than Calvert and St. Mary's combined.
But in the current budget process he has had to scale back a proposal that asked for five new employees and a budget increase of 11.86 percent to $33.27 million. Now, his plan asks for an 8.96 percent increase with no new employees.
Even the yearly seniority pay increases all deputies receive in Southern Maryland now may be on the budget chopping block.
All the sheriffs say currently existing police services will not be cut, even if the budgets are.
"We may have to do more with less," Davis said.