NEW CUMBERLAND - The start of the new fiscal year July 1 has Hancock County commissioners looking for ways to bring down the cost of insurance, including improving the driving record of sheriff's deputies.
Sheriff Mike White says he's all for safety, but he believes his department has been unfairly singled out in the debate over insurance.
A detailed loss report from Travelers Insurance, the county's carrier of property and casualty insurance, shows $3.1 million being paid out on 61 claims between July 1, 2006, and July 1 of this year.
Of those claims, an estimated 17 were the result of accidents involving sheriff's department vehicles, according to an analysis of the loss report. That's an average of about three accidents a year.
White thinks that's not a bad record, considering the line of work is law enforcement.
"When you're driving that many miles, you're going to have some accidents," White said. "We've had some accidents - I won't deny that. But if you look at those accidents, most of them were things we couldn't control or where we were struck by another person."
White believes his department got a "bum rap" from county commissioners when the issue was debated at a recent meeting. The county's insurance agent, John Frankovitch of Assure America, cited the sheriff's department accident rate as one reason the county's premium was going up by $36,000 - to an annual premium of $224,529.
The report prompted a response from commissioners, who said something had to be done about the accident rate. Commissioner Dan Greathouse called on White to report back to commissioners about a plan of action.
"The number of accidents with deputies has to be addressed," Greathouse said.
White was out of town at the time but said later, "They lumped everything in and made it look like it was all our fault. ... The whole blame for the increase was put on the sheriff's office."
White said he supports having more training for officers, who already must have 18 hours a year of continuing education to maintain state certification.
"I feel we've been doing that. ... They make it sound like we haven't done anything," he said. "We're always doing education and extra training."
Frankovitch is expected to meet with county officials soon to discuss further ways that safety can be improved.
Frankovitch's report of the past six years shows five accidents involving deer strikes. Some of those involved deer running into sheriff's cruisers, White said.
One incident in February showed Chief Deputy Todd Murray swerving to miss two deer and winding up in a ditch. The amount paid on that claim was $10,252, according to the report.
The most recent claim dates to May 17, when a deputy responding to a report of shots fired on Shady Glen Road failed to negotiate a tight turn on Ballantyne Road and struck a tree. The amount of damage to the cruiser was $8,700, although the claim has not yet been paid, according to the report.
In addition to automobile accidents, other claims involve workers' compensation, general liability, malpractice and property insurance.
Incidents run the gamut in severity - from a man tripping on a curb while walking into the Hancock County courthouse in 2006 to a man suing for injuries suffered in 2006 when he was shot by sheriff's deputies in Newell.
The man, Charles M. Penson, was later paid $2.7 million in damages, according to the report.
Several incidents in the report show accidents involving unspecified county vehicles, but it's not clear whether they are sheriff's cruisers. The total number of automobile claims, including those involving the sheriff's department, is 27, according to the report.
Commissioner Jeff Davis disagrees that the sheriff's department was singled out in the discussion over insurance.
"(Frankovitch) listed a number of different items that created the increase. ... It's not just the sheriff's department. It's the number of incidents, not just the accidents, that caused the higher rates," Davis said.
Commissioner Mike Swartzmiller said the commissioners simply were responding to the report from Travelers.
"We're not trying to stir anything up. Our main priority is the finances of the county. When things go up by ($36,000), we want to know why," Swartzmiller said.
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)