Mississippi County commissioners, sheriff discuss law enforcement budget

Friday, August 23, 2019

CHARLESTON, Mo. — The Mississippi County Commission and Sheriff’s Office are working together to ensure the county’s $1.8-million law enforcement budget is a balanced one by year’s end.

The county’s Presiding Commissioner James D. Conn, First District Commissioner Mitch Pullen and Second District Commissioner Darrell Jones discussed the current status of the budget with Sheriff Britton Ferrell and Capt. Barry Morgan during Thursday’s regular county commission meeting at the courthouse in Charleston.

“We would like to have an indication where you think you will end up at the end of the year as far as revenue and expenses,” Conn told Ferrell during Thursday’s meeting.

Law enforcement’s original budget for 2019 started at $1.4 million, and the county allocated $400,000 to law enforcement, the sheriff noted.

Based on figures as of July 31, the county projected a budget shortfall between $80,000 and $100,000, which is similar to Ferrell’s projections, he said.

“In my estimation, we have some revenue expectations that are a little high and probably some expenses that were not accounted for or miscalculated, such as a $100,000 over-budget of the fringe benefits package,” Ferrell said referring to the county’s budget projections through the end of the year.

Ferrell said his sole purpose this year was to trim the budget on the expense side while trying to increase some of the revenue

“The county, right now, is getting a commissary check from our office that I don’t think that’s ever been happening before,” Ferrell said. “We’re sending between $1,500 and $3,000 a month just in commissary items, which I think is a win for our office while at same time we’ve trimmed down personnel to where the people who are left are quite frankly exhausted because there’s no flexibility.”

When an employee takes off work, someone has to fill in, and there’s no one to take their place other than the person who worked the last shift, Ferrell said, adding that’s probably why the county has seen a small increase in employee time.

“The place is run by people; if there are no people there, the place doesn’t run so I’m going to take up for my people all day long,” the sheriff said.

Ferrell said this year his department has shaved off $250,000 in expenses compared to expenses in 2018.

“We’re six months in, and based on your projections, last year at the end of the year, the sheriff’s office borrowed $338,000 to finish out the year,” Ferrell said.

Conn clarified the sheriff’s office borrowed $738,000 out of the county’s general revenue fund. Of that total, $400,000 was allocated at the beginning of the year and $338,000 at the end of the year, he said.

One line item exceeding its budget is fuel expenses, which had $17,000 allocated for it. As of July 31, $18,000 had been spent and the county projected it to be $34,000 by year’s end.

“Here’s why the projection probably looks steep,” Ferrell said. “When I got voted in, I promised the people that we would be visible so what you’re seeing is an increase of fuel costs because my guys are doing their jobs. They’re out patrolling. I’ve heard from numerous people they’re seeing the deputies more than they used to, which I think is a positive for everybody.”

Ferrell asked the commission to consider in the future doing a fleet fuel card or requesting bids from fuel vendors.

“The issue with bids is no one will bid,” Pullen said.

Ferrell told the commissioners a truck and one of the other vehicles may need repairs soon. Morgan also asked the commission to consider a rolling lease and replenish vehicles every three years like the Charleston Department does.

“The comment I will have on capital expenditures, investments and that type of thing is we’re trying to see where would we end up this year with what we have going on in front of us as far as revenue and expenses,” Conn said. “Last year you had $338,000 either a shortfall — or over expense disaster.”

The sheriff and commissioners agreed the past is it what it is.

“The years 2017 and 2018 were an aberration because of capital improvements and the need to upgrade. That is a fact,” Conn said.

Morgan pointed out that law enforcement is starting from a new foundation.

“The fact is that Mississippi County started this year with $150,000 in reserves,” Conn said. “That’s like having $5 in a checking account. That’s nothing.”

Conn noted subsidies to law enforcement in previous years have been: $375,000 in 2014, $375,000 in 2015, $440,000 in 2016, … $655,000 in 2017 and $738,000 in 2018.

Actual expenses by law enforcement have been: $1.5 million in 2014; $1.6 million in 2015; $1.67 million in 2016. Actual expenditures in 2017 was $2 million and in 2018 was $1.9 million.

“So, when we set the budget for 2019, it was right at the (sheriff’s special) election (in January) and we didn’t have a designated sheriff as such,” Conn said.”We were getting information from the law enforcement but knew we couldn’t afford $1.9 million in budget.

He continued: “We knew we had $100,000 in the bank. There’s more going on than just law enforcement in this county so we put the budget together — and it has to be a positive budget; it can’t be negative budget.”

One way the county is counter-acting its projections for the law enforcement budget by eliminating paving this year in the county, Conn said.

“That’s a $200,000 or $300,000 hit to roads and bridges,” Conn said. “We said we don’t know what law enforcement is doing; we’re not going to spend that money because we have to wait and see how law enforcement is going to end up because of what happened last year.

He continued: “We had a $338,000 shortfall, and we still don’t know where this is going in the next five months so we’re having to counteract law enforcement.”

“What I’m gathering from this meeting is based on your projections, you’re saying it’s probably going to come in $100,000 the mix between revenues and expenses,” Conn said. “… and if you think it will be $200,000, now is the time to forewarn us.”

If the county does come out $100,000 off-budget for law enforcement, Conn said he isn’t sure what the county does. He said he assumes he will have to go to the bank and borrow money to finish out the year.

Ferrell: “I took an oath of office Jan. 29 to do my damnedest to make this county be the best it can be, starting at the sheriff’s office, and if my office at the end of the year is an overburden to this county, I’ll step down or not get re-elected or we need to shut the jail down. …I’m trying to the best I can do. We’re bringing in revenue; we’re cutting expenses.

Ferrell continued: “… If the detention center is a losing-money asset for this county, then it doesn’t need to exist. What you do in a successful business if you have an asset losing money, you don’t have that asset anymore? You sell it; let it go; transfer it. I don’t know.”

Ferrell said he’s not going to be responsible for an asset that’s losing money to the county because the citizens put him in office to make the sheriff’s department run better, which is what he’s trying to do.

“It is what it is last year; we can talk about that all we want. It doesn’t make a hill of beans,” Ferrell said.

Jones told Ferrell he’s done an excellent job.

“I don’t want to have a surprise (in the budget) either,” Ferrell said. “The commission has been extremely supportive of me this year. We’re all in this together.”

The commissioners nodded in agreement.

They went on to discuss law enforcement’s agreement with Prisoner Transport Systems, or PTS, which is ending. On the revenue side, a loss of about $100,000 is projected.

Even though PTS was budgeted to bring in $569,000, Ferrell said those projections were too high, and he’s not comfortable with PTS.

“It’s a sitting lawsuit waiting to happen. Their record-keeping is terrible. Their inmates are on a van for 14-plus days at a time with no medication and then they drop them off at our facility,” the sheriff said as he listed several reasons why the county does not benefit working with PTS.

He said PTS has gone on to Pemiscot County Sheriff’s Department now.

“We’ve in turn adopted New Madrid County inmates, but here’s what you get: PTS inmates do not have the capacity to buy commissary and make phone calls. New Madrid County inmates do, which that’s two revenue streams you gain by losing one entity,” Ferrell said.

Law enforcement is projected to bring $212,000 from New Madrid County by year’s end.

Ferrell said he’s checking to see if there are anymore counties they can work with to to offset revenue they won’t be getting from PTS over the next six months.

“We’re working on two or three other potential revenue streams,” Ferrell said.

Conn noted Thursday’s meeting with law enforcement wasn’t the first; it was probably the fourth so far this year — and it won’t be the last. They plan to meet to discuss the budget again in October, which is also when they’ll begin planning for next year’s budget.

“We want it to work —no question,” Pullen said. “We want it to work for you and as the county as a whole.”

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