York, Sheriff Fire Off Budget Concerns

York, Sheriff Fire Off Budget Concerns

Sheriff Stephen Simpson welcomes an audit of the Sheriff’s Office but not the politics he claims go along with Chairman Scott York’s request.

York (R-At Large), on the other hand, wants the audit after Simpson made what he considers an “unwise decision,” as he stated in a letter dated Aug. 5.

Simpson announced plans late last month to reduce two school programs in response to an increase in major crimes during the past year and to what the Sheriff’s Office views as a shortage in funding. York, along with Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Mercer), recommended the county call for an independent audit of the sheriff’s fiscal year 2003 budget, as York stated in the letter. The letter was sent to members of county administration, the Board of Supervisors and Superintendent Edgar Hatrick, but not to Simpson, who said he found out about the audit from the media.

"It's disappointing he has failed to tell the community the truth of what is going on," York said. "We have more than adequately fulfilled funding of his office."

SIMPSON WELCOMED the audit. “I think it will prove our point, but I don’t appreciate the way Chairman York and Supervisor Burton went about this. Instead of saying something to me, they write letters to principals and PTA [Parent Teacher Association] presidents. … I felt like it was a slap in the face.”

In his own letter, Simpson notified the public of his plans to deploy four deputies from the middle school resource officer program to the Criminal Investigations Division, leaving four officers to work at two middle schools each and retaining an officer for each of the high schools. Simpson said in the letter he plans to reduce the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program from 17 to 10 sessions in the elementary schools and remove it completely from the middle schools.

York opposed reductions to the DARE program based on the following, as he stated in the letter:

* The budget for the Sheriff’s Office increased from $19.7 million in 2000 to more than $33 million in 2003.

* The number of full-time employees increased from 321 to 444.

* The amount of county funding increased by nearly 100 percent to accommodate a decrease in state funding.

“The sheriff has been telling folks that he has had to cut back on the DARE program because the Board of Supervisors hasn't taken public safety seriously," York said. "This board has taken public safety seriously. I simply believe it's probably a problem with management over there."

SIMPSON DISAGREES. “What I’m asking for isn’t unreasonable,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office requested 128 new positions, including 54 deputies to help the office reach the national standard of one deputy on staff for every 1,000 residents, along with 15 criminal investigators and two DARE officers. The 13 positions the Board of Supervisors approved for the 2003 budget included two criminal investigators but not any DARE officers.

“It seems we have a continuous disagreement year to year on an appropriate level of resources. No matter how much we give him, he [Simpson] claims to need more,” Burton said. “I’m to the point where I don’t believe him anymore. … I can’t accept what he says without outside verification. … I think it’s time we take a good look at how he manages his resources.”

“They basically call me a liar,” Simpson said in reference to the Board of Supervisors members, adding that he did not appreciate their “false accusations.”

“It’s a shame they’re wasting taxpayer dollars to hire a consultant to answer their questions,” Simpson said. “If they truly wanted answers to the questions, why didn’t they ask during the budget process?”

BURTON QUESTIONS the 31 unfilled vacancies in the Sheriff’s Office that were included in the fiscal year 2002 budget. “Most of us felt his request was excessive because he hadn’t filled the spots we gave him from the year before.”

In response, Simpson said the number of vacancies is actually 26 and that half of the positions were approved on July 1. Ten of the 13 new positions are frozen until the end of the year when the next police academy will start, he said. He expects to fill the other 13 positions, which are open due to turnover, by mid-October.

“It’s a numbers game,” Simpson said, adding that the Board of Supervisors is trying to say he cannot fill the positions he already has.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s playing politics … crying wolf,” Burton said.

Simpson said the Board of Supervisors is playing the same game. “I do know York has made it known his interest in looking at a county police department," he said. "They [the supervisors] made it known they would prefer to have a chief they could manipulate and control.”

"That is not what's going on here," Burton said. "We are reacting to what the sheriff did. We believe he didn't need to do what he did."

Burton said the Board of Supervisors has not discussed the idea of a county police department as a board, though some individual supervisors have discussed it informally.

THE MOTIVE of the Board of Supervisors has Simpson concerned. He said that auditing the Sheriff’s Office makes for good headlines. “The stuff they’re saying isn’t factual. It’s inflammatory,” he said. “It’s all in the books. So, this to me is grandstanding to try to embarrass me. What could be possibly gained by this?”

Burton said the audits, which the board uses sparingly, serve a “useful purpose.” “If it turns out that we haven’t provided adequate resources, then we will take the corrective actions,” he said.

York’s recommendation for an audit will go before the Finance and Government Services Committee at the Sept. 3 meeting and before the Board of Supervisors as early as October. Burton is the committee’s chairman.