Court spars with Sheriff over budgetary needs
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Under a cloud of budget tension regarding the upcoming fiscal year, a dilemma has unfolded that has further strained communications and the relationship between the Williamson County Commissioners Court and the Sheriff’s Office.
In consecutive county meetings, commissioners debated with Sheriff’s Office leaders over a depleted line item for fuel in the current budget.
The issue came to a head when a budget amendment was requested at the July 31 meeting because all of the Sheriff’s Office budgeted funds for fuel and vehicle repairs and maintenance had been expended. The request was for a combined $150,537 to cover costs for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 31.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey and County Judge Dan Gattis questioned how the department ran out of funding and why the Court had not heard about the issue earlier.
Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tim Ryle centered his explanation on how the requested budget total was not fully funded at budget time last summer, but Covey and Gattis disagreed.
“Sometimes there are line items that just don’t get budgeted to the levels requested,” Covey said. “If that department just says, ‘Well, we’re just going to spend it anyway’ and then come to the Court and ask for more, that’s not the way a budget works. There’s got to be ways of somebody monitoring this as we’re going through.”
Gattis added that other departments in the county ran large numbers of vehicles and managed fuel accounts and, to his knowledge, none of them had exhausted their budgets.
In the end, commissioners tabled the issue until the next meeting in hopes of finding a solution and getting more questions answered.
Covey met with Sheriff Robert Chody between the meetings to discuss the issue and try to identify areas in the department’s budget where the funds could be taken from, but at the Aug. 7 meeting, the impasse between the Court and Sheriff remained.
“We looked at the budget to see how we could accommodate meeting halfway, and we’re just too tight on the budget,” Chody said. “We truly don’t have the funds to do what she’s requesting.”
He said the depletion of the budget could be traced primarily to having more officers on patrol.
“We believe the theory is that we have more staffing on patrol due to moves we have made in the past to accommodate some of the shortfalls that we’re trying to address,” Chody said. “So we have more officers, more deputies out on the streets, which makes sense. When you do that you are using more fuel and that’s something we couldn’t foresee.”
Citing lengthy call response times, Chody said the increased presence is critical.
“We’re being more proactive than ever in the community, and some on the Court themselves have called on the Sheriff’s Office to provide services in the community to make it safer and we’ve answered every call we got in that aspect,” he said. “We brought the response time down a little compared to other Sheriff’s Office response times, but mainly due to the staffing issue that we’ve fixed.”
Chody wanted the funds to come from contingency, but Covey balked at that suggestion, saying those funds are for unexpected items and requirements.
“That’s really where we look to contingency and say that’s a unique item and wasn’t something planned for. These are budgetary items,” she said. “We all have to keep up with our budgets, we can’t overspend our budgets, and when we do, we need to look within our budgets to find those amounts.”
Pointing at being funded at $653,150 when the Sheriff requested $840,000, Chody said not receiving the requested amount was critical.
“At that point is where you have to have management in there and use management skills and so forth, and say ‘I don’t have what I requested, but I’ve got to get through this year’. I’m not getting any answers that you’ve done that at all,” Gattis replied.
The issue of communication also came up as both sides pled their case on who was and wasn’t communicating well, displaying lingering tensions from previous weeks.
“My disappointment is that we are finding out about this only two or three weeks ago,” Gattis said. “We were elected for this budget. You’re elected to do your job and we respect that, but your office needs to be telling us. In years past, I can tell you they’d have been screaming way back that we would have to have a budget amendment. With all due respect, every time we ask, ‘Well, you just didn’t give us enough money’, is not the right answer.”
Chody countered that his office had been in touch with the County Budget Office and advised them that the funds were running out, and accused the court of not coming to him with issues.
“You were making comments last week that weren’t accurate,” Chody said. “I answered the questions and no matter what graphs we show, they don’t seem to satisfy the thoughts and concerns. You hear information outside from my office, or even from within my office, that I don’t know about and you take it and run and you don’t come to me, you don’t communicate with me.”
At one point, Gattis brought up a pair of questions he had asked Ryle in the prior week, hoping to get an answer to regarding the number of vehicles in the department and how many of those were take-home vehicles. He expressed dismay that he had not received an answer to either question.
Chody responded that he was waiting for some information from legal counsel before providing the answers.
“The court has a right to know that before we budget for it,” Gattis said. “You’re telling me there’s information the Court can’t have or the public can’t have? It is not our job to manage the sheriff’s department. We have no constitutional right to do that. But it is our job to approve those budgets, and it is the Sheriff’s job, and statutory requirement, that we be given the information that we can do that with.”
The Sheriff reiterated he’d prefer to answer the questions after consulting legal counsel.
Ryle reemphasized that the Sheriff’s Office did communicate the problem to other county officials.
“We did give advanced notification. We do track the budget. We did know we were running out of money in advance,” Ryle said. “The direction we got was to let it happen and when we get there, we get there.”
An email was sent to the County Budget Office in June, according to Budget Officer Ashlie Koenig, that led to a brief discussion of the issue, but no conclusion.
“His response was that they were underfunded, and we had a short discussion about the word underfunded,” she said. “In the end he did say that they were doing some things differently from previous administrations. I said ‘that’s great information, can you help us understand what those things are’ and that’s kind of where the e-mail ended.”
There was no resolution to the issue as it was tabled once again. Commissioners urged the Sheriff to find the funds somewhere in his budget.
“My hope was that we could toss it back to you and as you manage your budget, find some money to cover the overage in your budget,” Covey said. “That was the only reason we were having this discussion.”
The fuel bills are continuing to be paid, according to the County Auditor’s Office.