I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and this is an instance in which a local Republican is right and his two Democratic colleagues are flat out wrong.
Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. wants to spend a federal Homeland Security grant to buy a $98,691 sport cabin boat, which his office will use to patrol the Ohio River. Before he can do it, though, he needs the approval of at least two of the three Hamilton County commissioners.
Democrats David Pepper and Todd Portune initially said they were ready to sign off on the sheriff’s request, but Republican Greg Hartmann opposes the spending.
That’s somewhat unusual, because Leis — like Hartmann — belongs to the GOP. In fact, polls often show that the longtime sheriff is the most popular Republican official in the county. Most local politicians are reluctant to face his wrath.
Having served as sheriff, prosecutor or judge for 38 straight years, since Richard Nixon was president, Leis has ingrained himself like a barnacle on the region’s consciousness. He’s become grumpy and complacent and expects people to jump when he says so, but Democrats remain too timid to ever field an opponent in election years.
Hartmann, however, says “it doesn’t look right” to buy the boat at a time when Hamilton County is having budget problems. During the past few months, the county has laid off hundreds of workers, closed an old jail and cut back on some services to save money.
The sheriff defends the purchase, stating it will be paid using federal money, not the county’s tight general fund. That’s just political double-speak: Ultimately it’s still taxpayer money. More importantly, it’s spending that’s not really needed.
Leis says he would use the boat to patrol electrical plants, chemical companies, oil terminals and bridges along the river in case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. The truth is, the Sheriff’s Office is one of five agencies that patrol the stretch of river near Cincinnati, including the U.S. Coast Guard. If trouble occurs, it likely will be the Coast Guard that deploys boats.
Leis already has a speedboat, which he trots out every year for the Harvest Home Parade in Cheviot, along with his two helicopters, a tank and more than a dozen trucks, buses and Hummers. Even if most were paid with federal grants or drug forfeiture cash, there are serious costs associated with maintaining and storing this shiny arsenal.
The sheriff recently threatened to remove deputies from courthouse security and some township patrols at the same time while complaining he didn’t have enough funds to participate in the parade. Say it along with me: “Misplaced priorities.”
This is the same sheriff who has his own expensive attorney on staff instead of relying on the Prosecutor’s Office like all other county offices and departments do.
And let’s not forget all the personnel Leis strikes a deal with so they can retire and collect their pensions and then get rehired so they can “double dip” and continue drawing a salary, essentially getting two paychecks. Although it’s not illegal, double-dipping is unseemly and sends the wrong message during tight budget times.
And there’s the extensive fleet of take-home cars that Leis allows his friends in the Sheriff’s Office to use, including desk-bound workers who have no need for them.
Commissioners were scheduled to vote on the grant June 3 but delayed a decision for two weeks after public outrage. Now they will seek a report from Emergency Management Agency officials about whether the boat is needed.
“If this is a legitimate safety need, it would be irresponsible to reject it,” Pepper says. “If it’s just a toy that serves no purpose, I don’t want it. We need to take all of the politics and personalities out of it.”
It remains to be seen whether the report will be impartial or merely a method to give commissioners political cover.
Hartmann deserves praise for his principled stand. Despite what they say to voters, it seems most other local Republican leaders don’t care about out-of-control government spending.
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