Sheriff subcommittee meeting heats up


October 13, 2011
OSSIPEE— What controls does the sheriff have over expenses and what controls do the county commissioners have over his budget? Is there a breakdown in the work flow between the sheriff's office and the county business office? Does the sheriff have plans for reorganizing the staffing and duties in his department?

These were some of the questions posed at the county delegation subcommittee meeting with the sheriff Oct. 3 and the discussion, at several points throughout the two hour meeting, was heated to say the least.

Within the past few years the county delegation, made up of the county's 14 state representatives, has met as a whole board several times a year but has also branched off into subcommittees assigned to each of the county government's departments. These subcommittees are charged with learning the ins and outs of the operation of each department, understanding budget requests for the upcoming year and acting as a liaison between the department head and the full delegation board. The subcommittee meetings are posted at the administration building and are open to the public. Reportedly, the plan is to make all regular and subcommittee meeting schedules available on the revamped county website in near future.

Currently, the subcommittees are assigned as follows. Representatives Karen Umberger, Mark McConkey, Betsey Patten, Frank McCarthy, and Steve Schmidt serve on the sheriff/dispatch center committee. Representatives Chris Ahlgren, Dino Scala, David Knox, and Laurie Pettengill serve on the county attorney/child advocacy committee. Joseph Fleck, David Knox, Norman Tregenza, and Chris Ahlgren serve on the nursing home committee. Harry Merrow, Steve Schmidt, Laurie Pettengill, and Dino Scala serve on the registry of deeds committee. David Babson, Betsey Patten, and Joseph Fleck are on the county commission committee. Serving on the jail and house of corrections committee are David Babson, Frank McCarthy, Normal Tregenza, and Harry Merrow. For outside agencies that receive county funds, also known as regional appropriations such as RSVP and Carroll County Home Health Care, Mark McConkey, Karen Umberger, Frank McCarthy and Steve Schmidt serve that committee. The only delegate that does not serve on a subcommittee is Gene Chandler.

At the Oct. 3 sheriff department committee meeting, Sheriff Chris Conley and the county's finance manager Kathy Garry were asked to explain their take on the current system for making sure bills and revenue are coded, approved, and submitted properly. Garry explained that the process is the same for the sheriff's department as they are for every other department. The bills are reviewed, coded to the correct account number and approved by the department head or their designee. The bills are then submitted to the business office and posted accordingly. The county commissioners then approve the manifest and the bills are paid. Garry said the department heads are then given a printout of the bills that were paid. This happens on a weekly basis, she said. Conley argued that the process does not happen weekly and though Garry does "a top shelf" job, the process takes 30 days. Garry offered to sit with the sheriff at a scheduled time weekly to review his revenue and expense sheet and answer any questions.

McCarthy said the problem he sees is that even though the sheriff did not overspend the bottom line last year, "you overspent 20 of the 40 line items by $154,000" – a charge that Conley loudly denied. Umberger interrupted the exchange between the two men and said the goal of the discussion is to make sure that when the end of the year comes and it's time for 2012 budget discussion, Garry "isn't on one side saying her office has done everything right while the sheriff is saying they haven't".

McCarthy, said the first step is going to be the sheriff admitting there is a problem and likened the denial to that of an alcoholic or drug addict. "If he is in denial, nothing is going to get fixed. The sheriff is in denial," said McCarthy.

Later in the meeting McCarthy, who said he helped get the sheriff elected, said he is not trying to make the discussion personnel or to seem like he is attacking the sheriff but wants to make sure things are being done within the law.

Umberger had almost reached a conclusion she said would satisfy the subcommittee concerns about the budgeting errors and though Garry was willing to commit to the plan of meeting weekly, the sheriff wasn't so quick to be accommodating. When asked if he would meet with Garry, Conley responded, "I don't have the slightest idea. I will respond to you in writing." He then blamed the problem on the county's lack of willingness to invest in "adequate technology…they don't use it, they don't want it," he said. "I will get back to you on a specific plan. This county brings casual indifference to everything we do and I'm not going to tolerate it. I don't operate like that," said Conley.

In response to McConkey's question, Garry said the accounts payable system is working seamlessly with every other department and weekly meetings with other department heads are not necessary.

Throughout the meeting, Conley was challenged by McCarthy who didn't hold back on expressing his opinion or asking questions on a number of points until Conley had apparently had enough, "I think he wants to draw us into a contest. That's what this man is all about – he likes to cast aspersions. Why doesn't this Marine come down into my world for a minute and he'll have a full understanding about what we do," snapped Conley.

Reorganization

In an odd exchange that started an otherwise seemingly productive conversation, it was difficult to ascertain for a few minutes who was in charge of the meeting. Umberger said the next item for discussion was reorganization to which the sheriff responded, "It's difficult to address your question about reorganization." "You're the one that brought it up," said Umberger. "No ma'am I did not bring it up – you brought it up. I've been reorganizing this department since the minute I stepped in here. If that's what you want to talk about then I'm prepared to talk about it," said Conley. Then when Umberger started to explain why she understood the sheriff wanted to talk about it, all she got out was, "All I know…" when Conley sharply chastised her, "Ma'am you gave me the floor, allow me to have it." Which she did for a minute or two then, just as she had successfully done throughout the meeting, Umberger finished her sentence.

Should the sheriff's department be focusing only on the duties required by law – service of civil papers, transportation of criminals, and court security – or should it continue to serve as a backup police department for towns without full-time departments and continue to run a dispatch center?

All towns in the county pay a tax rate based on the total assessed valuation of the town's property and the total county budget. Towns without police departments or with part-time departments are not levied a tax or any other fee for getting the county-funded police coverage.

Conley said he has been trying to forge a partnership with other agencies including the state police to share funding and resources but doing so has been difficult at best.

With regard to the state police, Conley said, " I asked and would be willing to enter into any agreement with them at any time to increase the level of services for the citizens, but it is not forthcoming. The last attempt I made was to share detailed sharing with communications. I wanted a memorandum of agreement just to work on procedures. It was the only time I ever got a letter back from the Department of Safety, who said 'We will not enter into any MOA with you.' That wasn't directed at me: it was directed at the county. I can show you stacks and stacks of communication with other government agencies I want to leverage assets and work with and it's not forthcoming. I'm not going to give up but will keep at it until it's right."

With regard to other agencies, Conley said, "Government to government relationships are the most difficult and the most dysfunctional. I can cite a plethora of examples of why that is."

Conley agreed to put together his recommendations, in writing, regarding the future of the sheriff's department and dispatch center. And about whether the department should maintain the status quo or only cover statutory responsibilities, Umberger said, "Interesting dilemma that I think needs to be discussed with the commissioners and come to grips with."

One organizational piece that has been a topic at commission and delegation meetings is the sheriff's department second-in-command David Meyers and his work as the technical guru for the department, having built and now managing a computer system that only he is familiar with. Conley confirmed that Meyers will be retiring Dec. 1 and there is no one with the technical capabilities on the department's roster who can take over. Conley said he will be recommending that an outside contractor take over that part of Meyers' duties and he has been communicating with CyberTron, the company that handles the rest of the county complex's computer upkeep.

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