Sheriff Darr defends budget bust

Says office is under-funded

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 5, 2014 

Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr speaks with a reporter Wednesday afternoon at the Government Center following the verdict.

JOE PAULL — jpaull@ledger-enquirer.com

Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr’s office is on track to overspend its budget by about $2 million again this year, which would bring Darr’s six-year deficit total to about $9 million, according to city Finance Director Pam Hodge.

“We’re continuing to hold meetings with the sheriff and monitoring his budget,” Hodge told Columbus Council Tuesday night. “At this point in the year, his budget expenditures at the end of December are tracking the same as they were the last two fiscal years, right at the same amount.”

Darr maintains that budget overruns are a symptom of a department that is chronically under-funded by the city while it is strictly bound by state law to perform certain functions with no flexibility.

Darr’s budget for fiscal 2013 was $28.6 million, which he missed by about $2 million. His budget for the current fiscal year is $27.2 million, $1.4 million less than the budget he failed to stay within.

Darr said that $1.4 million cut included about $950,000 in personnel cuts, which simply isn’t possible if he is to fulfill his legal obligations. Saving that much from his personnel budget would require not filling 23 positions, which would affect his ability to meet state requirements.

“The bottom line is that we were under-funded from the beginning,” Darr said. “You can cut my budget all you want, but what’s required of my office doesn’t get cut. It takes x-number of people and x-number of dollars to do the things that are required of us.”

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson disagreed with Darr’s assessment.

“It’s every department head’s and every elected official’s responsibility to present a budget that is sufficient to fulfill their obligations,” Tomlinson said. “He said he could work with the budget we gave him.”

Tomlinson said she and her staff see more “budget and management issues,” than an inability of fulfill the core mission.

“We’re in the eighth month of fiscal 2014 and we’re still paying invoices (from Darr’s office) from fiscal 2013, Tomlinson said. “That’s bad budget management.”

In his first five years in office, Darr overspent his budget by a total of $7 million, city 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.

Darr maintains that he has yet to be given a sufficient budget to carry out the legal obligations of his office. And those demands are increasing, Darr said, citing a new state law that requires his office to transport juvenile inmates and the addition of another Superior Court judge, which his office will have to serve.

Darr said he has made cuts to his budget in overtime and in the areas of operations, supplies and training, but those are relatively small parts of his budget and can’t produce huge savings. He also has to maintain a certain level of training for his deputies to maintain certification.

In her presentation to Council , Hodge said that through December of 2011 (fiscal 2012) expenditure for the sheriff’s department was $12.4 million. At the end of December 2012 (fiscal 2013), it was $12.3 million. For this fiscal year, through December, the sheriff’s office had spent $12.3 million.

“Those are very similar fiscal trends as compared to the last two fiscal years, so the expectation is that we’ll be close to where we were last year,” Hodge said.

Darr was originally scheduled to appear before Council last Tuesday to discuss his budget, but that meeting was cancelled because of snow and ice. Darr was also scheduled to appear before Council at Tuesday’s meeting, but that was again postponed until next week.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson asked Hodge to meet with Darr and his staff to get specific budget numbers and get a report to her and to council prior to next week’s meeting.

“Let’s get the information together,” Tomlinson said. “I think we need to plan on a thorough conversation.”

Darr remains adamant that the savings just aren’t there.

“I told Pam Hodge, ‘If you think you can come down here and find some more areas that you can cut without cutting services or cutting what’s required of us, I’d be glad for you to do it,’ “ Darr said. “She won’t be able to do it.”

Inmate medical costs continue to be a serious budget issue, Darr said. Privatizing the jail clinic has helped, he said, but his office is still required to pay for inmates who have to go to the hospital or for treatments such as dialysis.

“What is the city wrestling with right now? Health care costs,” Darr said. “And the most unhealthy people that we have in the city normally are the ones being incarcerated. Unfortunately, that causes that line item to be very high.”

Both Tomlinson and the council have very limited authority over the sheriff, who is an elected constitutional officer. Council can control the amount of the sheriff’s budget, within certain limits, but has no authority over how he spends it.

Tomlinson said she looks forward to next Tuesday’s meeting and hopes it will lead to better practices within the sheriff’s office.

“We don’t see him making the case that the core mission isn’t sufficiently funded,” Tomlinson said. “In no event can we have a department that is chronically over budget. In the end, it’s the taxpayer who pays for this.”

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