Raiders at West Forsyth
In challenging economic times and on the eve of an election campaign, large government expenditures are quick to draw scrutiny.
In the case of the recent purchase of 16 vehicles for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, however, the situation also illustrates the complexities of budgets and public sector spending.
The budget for the sheriff’s office requires the approval of the Forsyth County commission. Once set, it’s up to Sheriff Ted Paxton to manage it.
Yet the more than $439,000 the commission authorized spending last month on vehicles for the sheriff’s office didn’t come out of the agency’s budget. Rather, the budget for the county’s fleet maintenance department covers the costs of sheriff’s and other vehicles.
The budget is a sensitive, if not frustrating, issue for Paxton, a three-term sheriff who has previously said he will seek re-election this year.
The sheriff’s office accounts for about 41 percent of the county government’s overall budget. It has 382 employees, which includes civilians and deputies, and is responsible for jail operations, courthouse security and law enforcement, among other duties.
Paxton acknowledged the office’s budget has increased about 4 percent, from about $36.1 million in 2011 to about $37.5 million this year.
That’s due largely due to the rising costs of operating the detention center.
"The overwhelming percentage of increases is relative to nothing more than that albatross sitting right there, that county jail," Paxton said.
He added that for the past 10 years the total inmate population has fluctuated annually at an increase of about 8 to 12 percent.
He said the jail can hold only up to 200 inmates and the balance, the number of those having to be housed in other counties, is increasing.
Although voters approved expanding the jail through an extension of the 1-cent sales tax, the budget quandary runs deeper.
Paxton said the $37.5 million budget amount is not a valid reflection of the situation, because there’s about $12.8 million in allocated funds he can’t touch.
Allocated funds make a difference
Allocated funds contribute significantly to the budget of the sheriff’s office and, Paxton noted, are set by the county commission.
The sheriff has no authority to raise or lower that amount, nor can he move money from those funds to discretionary areas such as overtime and uniforms.
The internal services funds portion of Paxton’s budget, which is also allocated, includes public building fund charges, information systems and technology, or IT, fund charges and worker’s compensation insurance.
David Gruen, the county’s finance director, said internal service funds appear in essentially every department’s budget. They represent the services received from other departments, such as IT or geographic information services, or GIS.
"As far as the sheriff or any other department or office is concerned, they don’t directly control [them]. In other words they don’t tell us, ‘Well I’m going to budget so much for this service or that’," Gruen said.
"The indirect control they have is the number of people they have, the number of vehicles, the number of computers and so on."
Gruen said he wasn’t working for the county when the decision was made to put internal service funds into the various budgets.
"But normally what it does is it helps to show the true cost of every department and office in function because they need those services as part of what they do," he said.
But to Paxton, it’s important to know where the money being spent on a government entity is coming from.
He pointed out that in 2011 his office was charged some $1.6 million for IT services.
"So rather than put the $1.6 million into the IT department’s budget, which would make sense to me … they reflect it in our budget," Paxton said.
"It’s not hard dollars. It’s no money I have available to me for anything in the sheriff’s office. And every month they deduct 1/12 of that and shift it over to the IT department’s budget."
He likened the practice to money laundering.
The sheriff’s office is also charged $480,000 per year for the contract between the county government and veterinarian Lanier Orr for the county’s animal shelter.
"That contract is between the board of commissioners and Dr. Orr," Paxton said. "I am not a signatory on that contract. I have nothing to do with that."
Citing state law, Paxton said that once the budget for a constitutional officer is set "then it is the absolute responsibility of that constitutional officer to administer that budget."
"Well, in the method in which they are doing it, what they’re doing is removing my ability to administer that budget," he said.
The sheriff said he has total administrative authority over the $24.7 million in this year’s budget, which is used for items such as salaries, gasoline and inmate housing.
"But that [other] $13 million doesn’t exist," he said. "According to case law and statute, if the county is saying that the budget for the sheriff’s office is $37 million, then by case law there should be $37 million in there for me to administer … but it is not there and that’s the issue."
Accounting methods factor in comparisons
Paxton often is criticized by those who compare his budget with those of law enforcement agencies in neighboring counties.
He said such comparisons are unfair and not a true reflection of the funding situation.
Of the 159 counties in Georgia, there is no standard procedure to follow in assembling a budget.
Paxton pointed out that to compare counties, one must take into consideration the unincorporated population his office serves compared to those handled by agencies elsewhere.
"Once you go and compare apples and apples and oranges and oranges, then at the end of the day, services in Forsyth County are cheaper," Paxton said.
It’s not uncommon for those wary of the amount of money in the sheriff’s budget to compare it to counties like Hall and Cherokee, which on the surface would appear to have smaller budgets than Forsyth in proportion to their larger total populations.
But Paxton said a deeper look reveals different results.
Cumming, which has a population of about 5,400, is the lone incorporated city in Forsyth County. According to 2010 census statistics, the sheriff’s office serves an unincorporated population of 170,081.
On the other hand, Hall County’s population is 179,684 and 104,893 of those people live in unincorporated areas. The cities of Flowery Branch, Gainesville and Oakwood have their own police departments.
Using the 2011 budget as an example, and extracting the $13.3 million in that budget’s allocated funds, Paxton said the Forsyth sheriff’s office is left with about $22.8 million in discretionary funds. That breaks down to costing about $134 per person.
Paxton explained that he uses that method to compare his budget with those in Cherokee and Hall counties because they don’t have the allocated funds in their budgets that he has.
"They have totally different accounting practices in Hall County and Cherokee County, so that’s why we’re comparing it with that," Paxton said. "Those are actually the things that are similarly funded in each of those budgets as far as salaries, benefits and operating expenses."
In Hall County, which runs on a fiscal year from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, the sheriff’s office budget is about $30.2 million.
As a result, the cost comes down to about $287 per person.
While Cherokee County boasts a total population of 214,346, its sheriff’s office serves an unincorporated population of 157,596.
Janelle Funk, Cherokee County’s chief financial officer, said the 2012 budget was up for discussion last week.
The county is changing to an October to September fiscal year, which will result in a nine-month budget for 2012.
However, the sheriff’s 2011 budget, which goes from January to December, is about $26.4 million and breaks down to about $167 per person.
Cherokee County Sheriff’s Lt. Jay Baker said while the agency does assist some of the smaller municipalities with law enforcement, its primary work is in the unincorporated areas.
As for future Forsyth Sheriff’s Office budgets, Paxton said they likely will continue to rise.
In November, voters approved an extension of the 1-cent sales tax, of which the first $101 million collected will be used to expand the jail and build a new courthouse and associated parking deck projects in downtown Cumming.
"Thank goodness it passed, but we’re still looking at two and a half to three years before actual construction is completed," Paxton said.
"So during that interim, we’re still going to have to continue to do exactly what we’re doing now. And that increases every year because the number of inmates increases."
Paxton noted that those increases include the cost of inmate health care and food at the local facility.
For those housed elsewhere, the sheriff’s office is charged a daily per-inmate rate, which can also fluctuate.
Paxton said he expects those costs to rise significantly this year over last year.