MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA – Adding $350,000 to the budget is not enough to save three forensic satellite offices and they will close, probably some time this summer, according to the state forensics director.
“I needed $850,000 to keep them open and carry us through Sept. 31 (the end of the fiscal year),” state Forensics Director Michael Sparks said Wednesday.
“(The Legislature) found $350,000, which was cut 15 percent, giving us only $297,500. I appreciate what they gave us and I’ll go as far as I can, but it will not take us to Oct. 1.”
Sparks said while other state agencies are laying off employees because of budget cuts, he is trying not to. He said closing satellite offices in Florence, Jacksonville and Dothan will help him keep employees.
He said the employees — 15 at the three offices — will be moved to regional labs.
Sparks said as it stands now, the Florence office will merge with Huntsville, the Dothan office will merge with Montgomery and the Jacksonville office will become a part of Birmingham.
“We don’t have an exact time yet (to close the offices). We’ll look at that in the next few weeks and make that decision, but we can’t go until the end of summer,” he said.
Area law enforcement officials thought the problem had been worked out and the Florence office would stay open until the end of the fiscal year.
“We were informed last week that everything had been worked out so the office would be open for a while longer and then they would look for funding for next year — now this,” Muscle Shoals Police Chief Robert Evans said.
State Rep. Greg Burdine, D-Florence, was caught off guard when he found out Wednesday about the decision.
“I don’t understand this,” he said. “I thought everything had been worked out. We knew we were going to have to go back and get more money, but we thought this $350,000 was going to get things handled for the rest of the fiscal year.”
The three offices scheduled to close do mostly drug testing. The Florence office covers six counties and has assisted other labs in handling backlogs of drug analyses.
Local departments now go to the Huntsville forensic lab for services such as DNA testing, ballistics and autopsies. With the Florence lab closing, they will be forced to go to Huntsville with drug cases.
“I talked with Sparks last week and tried to plead our case, but I didn’t get anywhere,” Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing said.
Rushing said he asked Sparks how much it would save the department to close the three labs.
“He said there were other factors that went into the decision, (including) the cost of the building and utilities,” Rushing said.
Sparks said he did not know how much it costs to operate the three departments. He said expenses varied from department to department.
“My question is, if the salaries aren’t going away, where are the savings other than the cost of the lease or rent of the building and the utilities,” Evans said. “To me, it doesn’t add up.”
Sparks said he understands closing the satellite offices could put a hardship on smaller departments. He suggested sending the drugs to the department by mail, UPS or FedEx.
“There’s not any law enforcement agency in the state that would send illegal drugs to a lab by mail,” Rushing said.
Many law enforcement agencies said the closings will force them to rethink how and when they take drugs to the lab to be tested.
“We’ll likely wait and not go but once a month,” Killen Police Chief Mark Parker said. “I can’t afford to have a man go to Huntsville once or twice a week and have to sit there and wait to turn the evidence over.”
Colbert County Sheriff Ronnie May agreed.
“We’ll have to look at going once or twice a month and taking 15 to 20 cases at a time, which will cause a backlog,” May said. “That’s what made the lab in Florence so important. We could get the results quicker. This is a blow to law enforcement in the area.”