Cassilly Continues To Spar With Sheriff's Office Over Proposed 2024 Budget

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Sheriff Jeff Gahler speaks at the unveiling of the new police training facility and precinct headquarters in Aberdeen. (Credit: Harford County Government/ Facebook)

HARFORD COUNTY - Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly and Sheriff Jeff Gahler continue to spar over the executive's proposed fiscal year 2024 budget.

In a statement released on Monday, Cassilly described the sheriff's funding requests as "exorbitant" and said they would require "tax hikes on Harford County families." The statement is a response to Gahler's accusations that the executive is attempting to "defund the police" and derail an already funded project.

"If you don't like the term [defund]," Gahler said in an interview, "then don't defund the police."

The sheriff's accusations stem from two issues: the delayed construction of the approved police training facility at the former HEAT center and the lack of funding for two new positions at the sheriff's office.

In 2021, former county executive Barry Glassman joined Gahler to unveil a new 20,000-square-foot training center. The plan also called for a new central precinct, with its headquarters at the new facility. Gahler said that construction on the training center was set to begin this year but has been stuck in limbo since Cassilly took office in 2022.

The current Harford County budget includes $22.5 million to pay for renovations at the facility, but shovels have yet to break ground.

"Our community needs this precinct and training center yesterday, not tomorrow, and whenever it's built, it will cost more later," Sheriff Gahler said at a county council meeting last week.

According to Major Lee Dunbar, Bureau Chief of the Services and Support Division, the county has already completed the facility's engineering, architectural designs, and permitting. In an April 20 letter to Cassilly, Gahler said that nearly $1 million in taxpayer money has already been spent on the project's planning.

In an interview with WJZ, Cassilly defended stalling the project and said he wanted to evaluate the costs before moving forward.

"I came into this office four months ago," Cassilly said. "This was a project that was set up, and I just put a hold on it while I get my stuff together and evaluate where we are financially."

In a letter to Harford County Council President Patrick Vincenti, Gahler raised another concern about the proposed FY 2024 budget. Two victim services advocate positions at the department did not receive funding in Cassilly's budget.

"These positions are required to function as the point of contact for the public on ALL matters related to police misconduct allegations," Gahler wrote. "[Not funding these positions] would adversely impact the quality of services provided to the agency, our citizens, and stymie transparency related to misconduct investigations exposing the Sheriff's Office to civil litigation."

In 2021, the Maryland Legislature passed the Maryland Police Accountability Act, requiring all counties to create three police oversight boards, including the Police Accountability Board (PAB). The PAB handles complaints of police misconduct filed by members of the public and, on a quarterly basis, reviews outcomes of disciplinary matters considered a charging committee.

Cassilly has contended that the sheriff's office hired lawyers at substantial salaries in positions for which they are overqualified.

"If he wants to hire people at lesser salaries to fill these other positions," Cassilly said, "he's more than welcome to do that."

In a news release on Monday, Cassilly's office shared a chart detailing funding for the sheriff's office since 2008. The chart shows slow year-to-year budget increases until 2023 when the department received a $16.2 million increase. Cassilly said this increase did not reflect the office's needs but was a political tool in the former executive's reelection campaign.

"After years of modest budget increases in the range of $3M-$4M per year, the sheriff's budget was increased dramatically in the 2023 election year by a record $16.2M, as politics prevailed over sound fiscal policy," Cassilly wrote.

Credit: Office of the Harford County Executive

Gahler said that he plans to meet with each county council member to share data and gauge their opinions about moving forward with construction and funding the PAB positions.

Public hearings for the county budget will be held on May 4 and 10.

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