SuperWonk BreakDown: The Darr Documents, Part 1; Curing the Overruns

JohnDarrChuck Williams’ Sunday Interview with Sheriff John Darr on June 28th, 2015, seemed like a conversation between old friends. Old friends who care little for annoying things like math and, well, FACTS. Since GrumbleButt abhors a vacuum of facts, I decided someone needs to make some sense out of Darr’s interview, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s response, and the actual documents and numbers. Because municipal financial matters aren’t as nebulous as a casual conversation between old friends, municipal financial matters are *actually* quite specific.

In the 6 years he has been sheriff, John Darr has overrun his budget by $11,500,000.00. That averages out to nearly $2 million a year. That boils down to $159,722.22 a month; over $5,000.00 a day. It’s no small amount. There has to be a reason for this, right? This is what Sheriff Darr told Chuck Williams;

“The best way to describe the lawsuit is, in my opinion, we are underfunded within the Muscogee County Sheriff’s office to do the things that we are required to do and what is expected of us to do. And that’s probably about as much as I can give you on that.”

But then, in a classic I-don’t-have-ANYTHING-to-say-about-that-BUT-I-will-say-this move, he goes on to say the following throughout the interview;

“Williams: How much is your budget?”

“Darr: The total would be almost $27 million.”

“Williams: And that’s not enough money to do your job?”

“Darr: When we talk about the county jail, and when you looked at the budget process — I thought it was very interesting — once we started looking at things, when you start looking at inmate population to the budget that is allocated to us within the sheriff’s office, I think we were the lowest of anyone that we checked. Think about it. We’re lower than Augusta, Henry County, Macon ..”.

“Williams: These are documented facts?”

“Darr: No doubt in my mind. I know there is a document. Like I’ve told anybody, I recommend that people call the sheriff’s office in Augusta, Richmond County, find out their budget that is allocated toward running the county jail, their inmate population and what is the average cost of housing an inmate for the Richmond County Sheriff’s office. Macon, you name it — I welcome anybody to do that, and then ask us how much we are allocated in the Muscogee County Sheriff’s office, our inmate population, and how we’re spending per inmate compared to other people. It’s lower than all of the ones I presented during the budget process.”

“But to get back to my point — and that’s what I always say, Chuck — I welcome anybody doing that. That’s what they should be doing, and I’m fine with that. It’s real simple for somebody on the outside to say he’s got plenty of money, and this, that and the other, until you actually sit in this seat. And there’s a big difference. When you start talking about a sheriff’s office, there’s a number of things that we are constitutionally required to do by the state of Georgia. And there’s a lot of other things that are expected of us to do within the sheriff’s office, and that’s what a lot of people forget sometimes.”

“Williams: The budget that you’re in now that you need $1.2 million more than what you’re getting?”

“Darr: Yes, but there’s a variety of things that drive that. From medical cost in the jail, the number of inmates — that population goes up and down. Of the big things, if you ever look at the budget and the line item, one of the biggest differences we have is the bailiff and reserve deputy, which is the focus for that group as well. Security for not only the courthouse here, but the Citizens Service Center that they asked us to provide security for security at recorders court and the bailiffs that work in the courtroom for the judges and for us.”

“Williams: But isn’t it her [Tomlinson’s] contention that your office has consistently overspent its budget over the last five or six years?”

“Darr: I think that’s her point, and of course my standard thing is we’ve been constantly and consistently underfunded. And that’s where you have the difference, and that’s been my stance for the last few years.”

“Let’s go back, and I’m not trying to beat the drum here, I could give you three sheriffs’ offices and you contact them and ask what their budget is and what is your budget associated to the jail, and how many inmates do you have. … The cost of housing an inmate in Muscogee County and the cost of housing an inmate in Clarke County, Athens. It was like $16,000-$17,000 thousand for us, $24,000 thousand for Clarke. Come on. That’s the numbers you should be looking at. A lot of people with tell you, ‘You can play around with numbers.’ I don’t play around with numbers. I’m as ethical as one can be, and I’m going to be straightforward.”

“Williams: Is the mayor playing around with numbers?”

“Darr: No. I think we should be talking about the numbers we should be talking about — the cost of the sheriff’s office budget and the number of inmates and what we’re providing. And that’s what I would recommend. Why don’t you call up to Richmond County and say, ‘What’s your budget associated with the jail? Your overall budget is like $59 million.'”

This was Mayor Tomlinson’s response to that;

“One myth or misrepresentation, unchallenged by the Ledger in its recent interview, is that these overruns are somehow related exclusively to the rising cost of inmate healthcare. That is not accurate. Indeed, the million-dollar-plus annual overruns have been largely attributable to inflated payroll supplements paid to certain Sheriff’s Office personnel, resulting in some employees making 30 to 120 percent of their pay in “overtime” not required by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act to be paid at all. Rather, these are simply supplements paid through taxpayer funds due to the voluntary custom and management schedule of the Sheriff’s Office.”

“The Sheriff’s Office often argues that even with these overruns, it provides required inmate healthcare and runs its jail cheaper per prisoner than all others in the state. The Sheriff omits, however, that a significant million-dollar-plus portion of the inmate healthcare tab is picked up by CCG and the taxpayers through our contract with the Medical Center, which is not run through his budget but is supplemental to it.”

“The Sheriff’s Office omits that it often transfers monies out of the additional appropriations provided to it for inmate healthcare to pay for discretionary items such as additional uniforms, conference registrations and other operational expenses. The Sheriff’s Office omits that it often expends its first budgetary monies on items outside it mission, allowing inmate medical bills to go unsubmitted and unpaid for months after the end of the fiscal year and many months after they were accrued, causing vendors to threaten collections against the city. Another myth surrounding the present budget dispute is that the city is seeking to rein in these serious budget overruns by cutting funds necessary to run the jail. Untrue. The monies appropriated for the Muscogee County Jail have not been asked to be reduced except as urged by the Sheriff himself in support of the much-anticipated Rapid Resolution effort to reduce expensive jail time for first offenders and nonviolent offenders.”

“The only funds sought to be reduced through the budget process are related to duplicative law enforcement services. (And, no, the Sheriff’s Office is not the Chief Law Enforcement agency of the county, as OCGA § 36-8-5 shows that where there is a countywide police department so funded, the Police Department, not the Sheriff’s Office, is the Chief Law Enforcement agency, and while the Sheriff is required to have “some” budget for law enforcement, those law enforcement resources are not to be duplicative of others provided in the county.)”

So, let’s go to the documents to see what they have to say about all of this.
First of all, let’s take the Sheriff’s assertion that Columbus is funding our sheriff’s department at a lower amount than Augusta, Henry County, and Macon. It can get a little tricky when you get into comparing how communities expend their resources. Every municipality is different and has a unique set of challenges. An example of that would be the tax freeze that Columbus has to operate within. It keeps our revenue fairly stagnant, so we are constantly having to re-evaluate how we provide ALL of the services that a citizen expects from their local government. There are also mitigating factors such as whether or not a county is consolidated, and the sheriff’s office and a municipal police department share a jurisdiction in it’s entirety; population; fee structures; etc. So, let’s look at how Columbus expends its public safety money per citizen compared to several other Georgia counties.
DarrDocs11It’s pretty clear that Columbus is spending *way* more per capita than ANY of the other large counties in Georgia. Augusta and Athens both have consolidated governments like Columbus, but neither of those cities has a sheriff’s office trying to expand its mission in the way the Muscogee County Sheriff is. Augusta has a unified law enforcement office that coordinates the efforts of the police and sheriff in order to avoid any duplication of services. Athens’ sheriff department focuses its resources primarily on maintaining the jail, protecting the courts and serving papers. They provide extremely limited law enforcement duties. No wonder we are spending so much more than everyone else.
Next, Sheriff Darr invites us, the citizens, to do his home work for him. We political scientists have a technical term for this, it is called, “Annoying The Crap Out of People.” Don’t tell us who to call to find out what you should already know…give us the data and it’s source, that is what I expect from my government. Not “here’s who you call.” The Richmond County Sheriff actually operates two detention facilities, instead of one like Muscogee County: the Charles B. Webster Detention Center and the Richmond County Jail. Here is what I did; I Googled “charles b webster detention center cost per inmate” and “richmond county jail georgia cost per inmate”, and what I found out was **crickets chirping**. I went through 4 pages of search results on each search until I was well into the irrelevant hits. I searched several variations on the theme and went through those results in the same manner. I searched the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office website. I searched the Augusta government’s website. I couldn’t find it.
“Williams: These are documented facts?”
“Darr: No doubt in my mind. I know there is a document.”
When I first read that I thought it was an odd way for Darr to respond. Ordinarily someone so sure would then cite the information specifically and reference their source for the information. After all that searching, I’d like to see that document. So if Sheriff Darr is holding out for someone to win a gold star for finding the information, I hope he shares it with the rest of us when he gets it.
Next up, Darr’s contention that medical costs for the inmates are being underfunded and fluctuations in the inmate population are reasons for his overruns. There should be some historical trends and averages regarding inmate population that would provide logical guidance for estimating an average inmate population. I mean, what can I say. Effective school districts have to plan for fluctuating student numbers, effective jail managers have to plan for fluctuating prisoner numbers.
DarrDocs2As far as the medical costs (sorry for the quality of the image, it was taken directly from a copy of the document), Mayor Tomlinson presented solid, irrefutable evidence that Sheriff Darr is indeed moving money out of the account that pays for medical services for the inmates and into other, more pressing priorities. Like magazines. For the prison doctor waiting room, I guess? Conference registration fees? And a whopping $32k for “professional services”. THAT is a whole salary for some folks. A total of $66,000.00 of money meant for inmate medical expenses that did NOT go to inmate medical expenses. Even if we took the assertion at face value and assumed that inmate medical costs *are* what’s breaking the budget, then the Sheriff is removing money from the care of inmates KNOWING there isn’t enough money to take care of them. What conference on Earth is more important than insulin? I don’t even know what to say about that.
DarrDOcs14Darr goes on to say that personnel costs are exceeding his budgeted amount. I think that the people who serve this community in public safety deserve to have a base salary that is fair across the board. A law enforcement officer’s compensation shouldn’t be dependent on who an elected official likes and who he doesn’t like. This is what is going on right now; Instead of paying overtime to people who are actually working overtime, the MCSO uses overtime to enhance the pay of certain officers. This scheme is known as Straight/Gap Time. According to budgetary support documents, Columbus Consolidated Government has determined that 90% of the overtime paid out by MCSO is to sworn officers in order to pay them an hourly rate over and above their salaried amount. In other words, they are being paid twice for the same time worked. This is a voluntary decision made by Sheriff Darr. It is also a voluntary decision by Sheriff Darr to exclude the non-sworn officers from this questionable practice, including the reserve deputies.
I am the first one to say that we need to pay our public safety folks more. That is one of the reasons I am interested in streamlining some of the redundancies we have in our budget, so we can do *exactly* that. But for the people of Columbus and the Columbus City Council to be able to see what the *real* need is, schemes like Straight/Gap Time have to end. Columbus citizens need to know what the real costs are so we can make the right decisions to be able to raise the revenue necessary to meet them.
As we get Straight/Gap Time under control (which we are moving towards doing), Council MUST address the compensation of our public safety employees. But without a doubt, the most important thing we can do in order to pay our city employees a fair and competitive salary is to require our elected officials to manage their areas of responsibility in a manner that operates within the budget that council sets for them. Sheriff Darr shouldn’t expect that he can just spend his budget anyway he sees fit, then spend a million or so more, and the taxpayers of Columbus will just pick up the tab without any questions asked.
That brings us to the portion of the interview that involves Darr’s current lawsuit against the taxpayers of Columbus.
But that is a topic for another day.
Peace and Love Yall,

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