Sheriff blasts Quorum Court over possible budget cuts

Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson has accused the County Quorum Court of failing to ensure adequate funding of some departments and approve a realistic budget for others.

In a letter to Public Safety/Emergency Services Committee Chairman Herman Ginger, Robinson said he believed the sheriff’s office and the detention facilities it operates — the adult jail and juvenile detention center — are “bearing the burden of the county’s shortfalls.”

Robinson was reacting to a decision by Ginger to pull proposed six-month budgets for the adult jail, juvenile detention center and the Public Safety Sales Tax, which provides funding for the juvenile center and sheriff’s department, during committee meetings Tuesday night.

Click here to view the full text of Sheriff Robinson's letter and the proposed legislation referenced in it.

After the Tuesday meeting, Ginger said the sheriff’s department and the detention centers were over budget and if the three budgets were extended for another three months, “they would be approximately $300,000 in arrears.”

Both the adult jail and juvenile center are currently operating with three-month budgets which will expire at the end of March. The same is true of the Public Safety Sales Tax, which also provides funding for volunteer fire departments.

In his letter, Robinson said the issue developed after Jefferson County Treasurer Elizabeth Rinchuso projected a revenue shortfall of approximately $2 million for this year, and after 2013 budgets for every other county agency and department had been submitted and approved.

“However, there seemed to have been a deliberate rejection for budgets submitted by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the detention facilities I oversee, i.e., the Jack Jones Juvenile Justice Center and W.C. ‘Dub’ Brassell Adult Detention Center seemingly leaving our departments on the hook for a decade of oversights and gross financial responsibility,” Robinson said. “While I appreciate the seriousness of the current economic climate, I do not believe that vital services such as public safety should disproportionately bear the burden of the county’s shortfalls.”

Robinson went on to say that the sheriff’s office “has never expended beyond their annual budget approved by the governing body.”

“As spending for many departments has increased and supplemental funding approved by the full court, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office has remained within the confines of our approved budgets as it has over the last six years,” Robinson said.

The sheriff also questioned Ginger about three separate appropriation ordinances, one each for 2010, 2011 and 2012 that transferred money from the Detention Facilities M&O Reserve Fund (the quarter-cent sales tax for operation of the adult jail) and the Public Safety Sales Tax to District Court. As chairman of Public Safety/Emergency Services, Ginger was listed as the Justice of the Peace that introduced those ordinances.

According to the letter, those three appropriations totaled $1.479 million and Robinson wanted to know why the funds were used for district court, which falls under the judicial system, and not detention.

Additionally, Robinson asked if money received from the sale of the old adult jail to the Department of Correction had been appropriated. He said that since Public Safety money was used for the initial construction, “the funds should have been deposited or re-appropriated back into Public Safety.”

Contacted Thursday afternoon, Ginger said he had not seen the letter from Robinson. After a copy of the letter was faxed to him, he did not immediately return a second call for comment.

Robinson acknowledged that the sheriff’s office budget is probably the largest of the county’s constitutional officers but said the sheriff’s office has the ability to generate “quite a bit of revenue since the opening of the new County Jail and prior through a steady increase on the collection of fines and civil process.”

Among the programs Robinson listed as helping to increase revenue were pay for stay, the jail commissary, four Clean Teams, recycling efforts, profit from prisoner telephone calls and state and federal seizures.

“In spite of these efforts, the Quorum Court has chosen to implement what some would consider a county sequester by suggesting laying off personnel employed with such a vital entity as those in the career field of public safety and detention,“ Robinson said in the letter. “This was suggested in lieu of the governing body reviewing all Jefferson County department budgets more thoroughly and on a more consistent basis to identify budget cuts on a priority funding pursuant to the Arkansas Constitution.”

State law requires that county governments must fund courts first, then law enforcement protection and the custody of people accused or convicted of crimes second, followed by real and personal property tax administration, court and public records management and finally other services prescribed by state law for the performance of each elected county officer or department of county government.

Among the items the county may fund if money is available are solid waste services, utility services, community services and emergency services other than law enforcement protection and detention services.

“The suggestion of the proposal to cut funding and/or force the layoff of detention and sheriff’s personnel et al and action thereof by the Quorum Court in essence leaves the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the entities it oversees, i.e., Jack Jones Juvenile Justice Center and W.C. ‘Dub’ Brassell Adult Detention Center inadequately funded,” Robinson said in the letter. “In conclusion, these actions place the full court in direct violation of the plain language included (in) the Arkansas Constitution relative to proper funding of the Sheriff’s Office.”

The letter said budgets for some county departments are not adequate and “as such, Peter has been robbed to pay Paul by borrowing funds from next year’s budget or introducing legislation in the form of Appropriation Ordinances to shift funds from one place to another even in cases where the funds were originally appropriated for other uses by voters.

“We all know that isn’t a sustainable business model and because the court did not have a long-term funding solution it appears that my office is being forced to address the looming crisis,” Robinson said in the letter.