Sniper hunt cost county $426K, police chief says

The sniper investigation cost Prince William County $426,000 in police overtime, officials told the Board of County Ssupervisors Tuesday.

Prince William County, along with many other Northern Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions, put extra officers on the streets, cancelled leave and participated in a regional task force trying to catch the sniper in October.

The county is hoping to recoup some of those costs from the Federal Bureau of Justice, and has already applied for a partial reimbursement, county police chief Charlie Deane said.

Most of the money spent — $385,000 — was for personnel, but $41,000 will go for administrative expenses.

Those figures do not include the cost of the upcoming trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, 41, who is being held in the Prince William-Manassas regional jail awaiting trial.

The other suspect is 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, who is held in Fairfax County.

Overtime is normally a thorny issue for the board, which asks numerous questions about how such money is being spent. When the snipers were still at large, Deane indicated to the board there might be additional charges for the manhunt. No one complained.

County Executive Craig Gerhart suggested then that capture of the snipers was so important that whatever the cost, the bill would be paid. The bill was presented Tuesday, and will be reconciled in the budget by year end.

The news about police overtime came along with other issues outside the normal budget process that will have to be dealt with before the current 2003 fiscal year ends. Finance officials presented a first quarter update on Tuesday.

Among them are state budget cuts of $1.7 million. The county will cut 21 positions in the Community Services Board and 13 more in Social Services because of lost state aid to localities. Under the county’s reduction in force policy, many of those people will re-assigned to other jobs within the county.

Otherwise the county is moving steadily toward its goal of a triple A bond ratings from the agencies that assess the county’s creditworthiness, Finance Director Chris Martino said. Higher ratings mean cheaper financing costs for the county, so triple A ratings are desirable.

The ratings are currently one grade lower — known as double A (AA+ from Fitch ICBA and Aa1 from Moody’s Investor’s Service) which indicates superior financial management, low to moderate debt and a fund balance, or reserve, of 6.5 percent. Five percent is the minimum. Fairfax County, Arlington County and the city of Alexandria all have triple A ratings.

Triple A ratings are achievable in time, Martino said. The rating agencies have upgraded Prince William’s credit three times in the past ten years because of sound financial management. They are looking for consistency, and to see if the county has a plan for dealing with setbacks such as state budget deficits and a shaky economy. Both have been demonstrated through the county’s continual monitoring of financial trends, he said.

In addition, the county is once again projecting a year end surplus, and it will be higher than expected. Instead of the $456.1 million anticipated in revenues, $467.7 million is expected for an $11.6 million increase. After contributions to the school division and reserves, almost $4 million will be left for spending, budget officials estimated.