Sheriff Darr racks up $7 million budget deficit over five years

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 28, 2013 

ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr leaves the federal courthouse Wednesday morning following the verdict in the gender discrimination lawsuit filed against him and the City of Columbus. 09.18.13

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

In his first five years in office, Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr has overspent his budget every year, racking up $7 million in accumulated deficits in that period, city records show.

The overspending, Darr said, is the result of a budget that is insufficient to carry out the legal and constitutional obligations of his office. Increasing demands placed on the Sheriff's Office by the county jail, its medical clinic and burgeoning demands from the court system exceed the amount of money the city budgets for the office, he said.

Read Mayor Teresa Tomlinson's proposal, which includes a breakdown of Sheriff John Darr's expenditures and overtime

Darr's deficit spending has averaged about $1.4 million a year and has become progressively worse every year, records show.

In 2009 his overrun was $673,000; in 2010 it was $1.15 million; in 2011 it was $1.4 million; in 2012 it was $1.74 million; and in the fiscal 2013 budget, he spent about $2 million more than his budget of $28.6 million. The deficit total for the five fiscal years: $6.96 million.

By contrast, former Sheriff Ralph Johnson overspent his budget in his final four-year term, but by a fraction of Darr's deficits. His total four-year deficit was $820,000, exceeding his budget by $152,000 in fiscal 2005 and by $668,000 in fiscal 2006. He made his budget in fiscal 2007 and 2008.

Sheriff's Maj. Randy Robertson said Darr has spent a lot more time and money bringing the jail and its medical clinic into compliance with a federal Department of Justice decree placed on the facility in 1999 after a 1995 report criticized jail conditions as inadequate and in violation of inmates' civil rights.

Darr and Robertson said they believe the jail is close to being removed from the federal oversight, but that has come with a price tag.

Both at the jail and at its clinic, a certain level of staffing is required by law, Darr said. If some people call in sick, he has no choice but to staff those slots, which often means overtime.

"If someone calls in (sick) in the Patrol Division, we can work around it," Darr said. "But in the jail and clinic, we don't have that flexibility. We have to maintain a certain level of staffing to be in compliance."

Darr was scheduled to appear before a Columbus Council work session on Sept. 17 to discuss his overspending but was in federal court on a gender discrimination lawsuit.

The federal jury found that Darr did discriminate against two female employees but awarded no monetary damages, actual or punitive. His appearance before council was rescheduled for early October.

The Ledger-Enquirer acquired a copy of a memo from Mayor Teresa Tomlinson to council that outlined the sheriff's budget problems. The package outlines Darr's history of overspending and presents possible solutions and suggestions for policy changes. They include:

• Setting a goal to reduce rampant overtime spending in the department.

• Hiring an in-house financial analyst/accountant who would work for the Sheriff's Office.

Tomlinson's memo to council includes a list of positions within the Sheriff's Office and the overtime they made in 2012. Included on the list are eight people who made between $10,000 and $15,000 in overtime and seven who made between $15,000 and $20,000 over their regular salary.

Three others made $24,012, $39,661 and $44,363 in overtime alone. The latter, a licensed practical nurse, had a base salary of $36,755, but averaged 32 hours of overtime a week, bringing that person's yearly pay to $81,119.

The mayor makes about $76,000.

Darr said the LPN's situation is a good example of the clinic being under-funded. The clinic, in order to be in compliance with the federal decree, must have a certain level of staffing, which requires considerable overtime because there are not enough positions budgeted for the clinic, Darr said.

That problem will end this week when a private firm, Correctional Healthcare Companies, takes over operation of the jail clinic. The clinic's contract calls for the Sheriff's Office to pay $2.6 million for the first two years, then $2.7 million, $2.8 million and $2.9 million for the next three years.

Robertson said he believes privatizing the clinic will save the city some money, but more importantly it will provide stability in the amount the city spends and eliminate wide swings in health care costs that are hard to budget for.

Not just medical

Tomlinson said jail medical expenses are a problem, but only part of the reason for Darr's budget problems. Jail medical expenses made up the majority of the deficit spending in only two of the five overruns, in 2009 (63 percent) and 2013 (57 percent). In 2010, '11 and '12, medical expenses accounted for 42, 30 and 49 percent of the deficits, records show.

In addition to jail medical bills, timing was also a major problem in the recently ended 2013 budget. Just as the budget preparation season for the fiscal 2014 budget was ending, Darr's office dropped more than $1 million in jail medical bills in the city's lap, causing some ruffled executive and legislative feathers.

Grudgingly, council voted to pay the bills but threatened to take the issue up with the mayor when they revisit department budgets at the mid-year point at the end of the calendar year.

At the time, Darr said some personnel changes led to the invoices being delayed in being delivered to the city.

Tomlinson said she directed city Finance Director Pam Hodge to contact all the affected vendors and instruct them to send copies of all invoices to her office so the administration would know exactly what obligations were outstanding, and to avoid end-of-the-year surprises.

Overtime

The mayor said the increases in overall overtime spending are puzzling because Darr's office has been given 27 new positions over the last three years.

"Usually when you get more personnel your overtime decreases," Tomlinson said. "They've actually had a trend where the more help they get, overtime increases, and that's sort of an anomaly. So I think with some innovative scheduling techniques we could take a bite out of that."

Overtime is going to continue being an issue, Darr said, because of the increased workload placed on his office. With 100 more police officers put on the streets a few years ago, more people are entering the county jail and the county courtrooms, the sheriff said.

Chief Superior Court Judge Gil McBride confirmed that traffic in civil and criminal courts has increased, as has the workload the courts place on the Sheriff's Office. And that load will increase when a seventh judge and possibly a sixth courtroom are added next year.

Darr and Tomlinson agree that hiring an accountant or financial analyst could help the sheriff stay within his budget, but Tomlinson stressed that the position would have to come out of his existing budget.

"We want someone who can not only look at the numbers, but look at the trends," Darr said. "We would like somebody with a financial background, not just law enforcement."

Tomlinson's memo to council also suggests doing away with the use of "gap time," a practice that in effect pays an employee an hourly rate on top of a salary. It costs the taxpayers "hundreds of thousands of dollars a year," the memo states.

"It is predominantly in the Sheriff's Office and a more minimal amount in the Muscogee County Prison," the memo states. "It is a Public Safety issue as no General Government employee gets such pay."

Both Darr and Robertson said they do not know what Tomlinson means when she refers to "gap time."

Because the sheriff is a constitutionally mandated elected position, the mayor and council have little if any authority over it.

Council can restrict the sheriff's budget, though not unreasonably, but has little say over how the sheriff chooses to spend the money, as long as the spending is consistent with the mission of the office.

"They have free range as long as it's within their mission, as set forth by the state constitution," Tomlinson said. "But if they keep going over, we can take that into consideration when we're setting the next year's budget, and we can also intervene as we're doing here to work with him to find budget management controls that can help them and help us."

Those same constitutional mandates are in part what drives Darr's budget woes, the sheriff said.

"Is that an excuse? No. It's just reality," Darr said. "We want to be fiscally responsible, but unfortunately we have some things that are out of our control sometimes."

Darr's department has 390 full-time and about 40 part-time employees. He is responsible for safety in Juvenile, State and Superior courts, operating the county jail and serving most of the courts' civil papers.

The budget for fiscal 2013 was $28.6 million, which he missed by about $2 million. His budget for fiscal 2014 is $27.2 million, $1.4 million less than the budget he failed to stay within.

Asked if it is possible to carry out all the federal and constitutional mandates facing the office with the budget he is given, Darr said, "No."

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