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FLATWOODS, W.Va. -- In a large hotel conference room in Braxton County, 23 county sheriffs and several chief tax deputies have their eyes riveted to the speaker up front, straining to hear and taking notes.

If it looks like they're in school, it's because they are.

"We call it the New Sheriff School," said Rudi Raynes-Kidder, executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs Association.

Every four years, the Sheriffs Association holds the orientation and training seminar to give a new crop of sheriffs some background and training for their new jobs. "You've got the old guns coming to teach the new guns," Raynes-Kidder said Tuesday.

Because sheriffs in West Virginia are limited to two four-year terms, some turnover is guaranteed every election cycle. Thirty-five new sheriffs took office this month, 23 of whom came to the sheriffs school in Flatwoods.

"It's a great overview," said Steve Deweese, newly elected sheriff in Putnam County. "There's a lot of stuff I've learned in the 2 1/2 days I've been here."

The course began Sunday with a history lesson and general overview of a sheriff's responsibilities. Raynes-Kidder said the sheriff's primary job is to collect county taxes, but sheriffs must also provide courthouse security, provide law enforcement services in their counties and create and administer their own budgets.

Class continued Monday and Tuesday with specific information on everything from how to work with local judges to hiring employees, preparing budgets, responsibilities of tax collection and training deputies. Sheriffs even got a primer on dealing with the media presented by Raynes-Kidder, who is a former television news reporter.

"These guys will put their lives on the line to protect someone they don't know, but if you put them in front of a camera they're scared to death," she said. Raynes-Kidder said she advised new sheriffs that they are best served by being open with reporters.

Raynes-Kidder said a law enforcement background isn't required to be elected to the office of sheriff, although most successful candidates for the office come from a police background.

But even seasoned law enforcement veterans have a lot to learn when they make the move from deputy or police officer to sheriff.

"I don't think some people understand the huge responsibility that's placed on the sheriff," said newly elected Randolph County Sheriff Mark Brady, a former police officer, deputy and chief deputy with 20 years in law enforcement.

"Basically, the buck stops with the sheriff," Brady said. "It's the only law enforcement officer elected by the people. Everyone else is appointed."

Many newly elected sheriffs are surprised by the amount of work and responsibility that goes into collecting and keeping track of taxes. "You really don't realize that as a deputy," said Deweese, who has been with the Putnam County Sheriff's Department since 1996. "I knew it, but I didn't realize all the responsibilities of being the chief treasurer of the county."

"I was in law enforcement, so that's a new aspect of my duties," agreed recently elected Logan County Sheriff Sonya M. Dingess-Porter. Although she has been with the Logan Sheriff's Department for 19 years -- in every job from court bailiff, patrol deputy, task force member and chief deputy -- tax collection and budgeting are new to her.

While the classroom instruction and information at sheriffs school is useful to new officeholders, many new sheriffs also find the school helpful in getting to know each other.

"The classes are great," Raynes-Kidder said. "But just talking to folks about how they do things helps a lot too."

Dingess-Porter agreed.

"It gives us a chance to communicate with each other and learn what resources we all have," she said. "If we have to work together, you have a face with a name."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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