News and Tribune

August 8, 2011

Clark County budget battle continues: Sheriff’s commissary fund used to keep other county offices afloat


JEFFERSONVILLE — Clark County Sheriff Danny Rodden’s budget has become the target of a $1 million cut to help bridge the budget deficit facing Clark County.

The sheriff’s department by far has the county’s largest budget — about $9.5 million combined between the jail and the sheriff’s office. But Rodden has consistently said he has little room to cut and the expenses he has incurred are outside of his control.

“I have no control over that,” he said of the money needed to run the jail.

Rodden said the jail, as of Thursday, had 483 inmates in a facility that is supposed to house 450 prisoners.

“It’s getting dangerously close to being dangerous for our employees because I don’t have enough people,” he said.

Rodden said the sheriff’s department is about 20 officers short of the standard the county should employ.

“It’s not like I’m doing stuff that I’m just having fun,” he said. “I’m obligated by the law to care for the inmates. I have to provide a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet for them and I have to keep the place clean. That costs money for cleaning supplies [and] the inmates do all the work.”

Sheriff’s deficit

There is a $1.5 million general fund deficit for the department, according to Rodden’s budget figures. Rodden said he has $496,620 to pay deputies salaries in the general fund, but he needs $808,000 to carry the office through the rest of the year. There is a larger gulf in the salaries needed for the jail.

The operations for the Michael L. Becher Adult Corrections Complex are being paid for out of Local Option Income Tax funds — designated for public safety purposes — but salaries are included in the general fund. At the beginning of the month, the sheriff had $226,768 to pay salaries for the rest of the year, but he needs $1.4 million, leaving a deficit of $1.2 million.

While the Clark County Council has asked Rodden to cut $1 million out of the general fund to help the county fund operations for the rest of the year, he said he was promised the cuts the council were going to request would not affect salaries.

The council has said — and has provided the News and Tribune with a copy of — the approved budgets with cuts that were given to the county office-holders in March. Rodden’s initials appear next to an approved budget of $2.1 million in the notice, which referred to the police portion of his budget only. The jail’s operations were planned to be covered out of the county’s portion of the Local Option Income Tax distribution.

Despite the acknowledgment that cuts were coming, Rodden said the information he was getting from the council was inconsistent.

“They told me I needed to cut $100,000, so I laid off three employees,” he said, referring to a request made earlier in the year. “I thought that was what I had to cut. Now, they come back and say I’ve got to cut $1 million. How do you do that with this facility?”

As for being informed that Rodden would need to cut $1 million out of his budget, he said that did not become apparent until June.

“Every report we got from the auditor’s office said we had the money,” he said.

Commissary Fund

Although Rodden has said he has no room to cut his budget, the department’s spending has drawn criticism, especially during public meetings. During the Clark County Commissioners meeting July 27 — where an increase to the Cumulative Capital fund tax rate was approved — audience members complained that additional funding was not needed for operations if the sheriff was buying pigs at the 4-H fair auction. Rodden admitted he bought a hog at the auction, but the animal purchased was butchered and used to feed the inmates at the jail.

“That saved the county on food for the inmates,” he said. “I’m trying to help the 4-Hers and at the same time helping the county because I’m buying food to feed the inmates.”

The money spent to purchase the animal did not come from the sheriff’s portion of the general fund, but from his commissary fund.

“These funds aren’t tax dollars,” Rodden said. “They’re profits made from sales of things to the inmates. I feel like I do help with a lot of expenses ... out of that fund.”

According to an itemized report, from January through the end of July, the commissary fund brought in $447,002. Out of that fund, $406,167 was spent, including money dedicated to another county office to keep it afloat. In the commissary fund’s public relations line-item, the sheriff’s office spent $57,324 during the seven month period.

“Those are all the donations I make to different organizations,” Rodden said, explaining the line-item.

Nearly $18,000 of the public relations money was dedicated to the Clark County Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service office, which had its budget cut by the council and could no longer fund its operations to the end of the year.

Paul Graf, president of the 4-H Corp. Board, said in a previous article that the office did not have funding to cover its expenses beyond August. The office had made a request to the council to cover that shortfall at its July meeting, which was tabled, and another request to restore the extension office to the previous year’s budget — a request of $34,734 — was denied.

Rodden stepped in and gave the office a donation in order to keep it operational.

“Evidently, they were going to close. If they close, 4-H goes away,” Rodden said. “I think it’s very important to this community that we keep 4-H. I feel very strongly about the 4-H program and how many kids it touches, and if you don’t have the extension service you don’t have 4-H.”

Rodden explained that an ordinance and a resolution — ordinance 8-2008 and resolution 2-2008 — allows his office to use money from the commissary fund for training purposes, purchasing equipment and activities designed to reduce or prevent crime.

“My thinking is that if I can help the youth groups throughout the county — the high school teams, the Little League teams, the 4-H all those kinds of organizations — I’m helping to keep kids off the street,” he said. “Hopefully, they’re not turning to crime they’re turning to positive things.”

Although Rodden said he designated the money out of the commissary fund for a good purpose, since the $1 million cut was requested of his office he said he would revisit the policy.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with donations from this point, because this budget thing just fell on me at the end of June,” he said. “I have cut back on some of the donations since then.”

When asked why he did not use the money to cut into the department’s funding gap, he said after expenses the commissary fund pays for, there is a minimal amount remaining. He added that the money from the commissary fund cannot be used to pay a salary.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need,” Rodden said. “I feel like I’m trying to help in the community. Maybe I have to stop that. I’ll just have to evaluate that as it comes.”

Pursuing the lawsuit

In order to fund his operations through the remainder of the year, Rodden is looking into filing a lawsuit similar to the mandate issued by the Clark County courts.

“There’s a state mandate statute,” said Commissioners Attorney Greg Fiferx. “There is a general mandate when an official fails to fulfill their duty — which the county council’s duty is to properly budget and appropriate sufficient funds to run government. When they fail, [Rodden] can mandate.”

He said there is less legal precedent for an office outside the courts to mandate for additional funds, but it can be done.

“Since there are statutes that say what [Rodden] has to do, he’s going to have a much stronger case,” Fifer said.

Before he can pursue the mandate he must attempt to secure funding through other sources.

The first step in that was the denial of a $1.5 million request presented to the Clark County Commissioners on Thursday. Rodden plans to present the same request to the Clark County Council at a meeting today, and if it is denied again, he plans to file the mandate as quickly as possible. He said the lawsuit that he would be seeking would be used to cover the employee salaries this year.

“It’s $1.5 million we’re short in payroll,” Rodden said. “That’s just salary. That’s nothing to do with operations. That’s why I’m going to have to pursue some litigation.”

When the council prepared the sheriff’s budget for this year, Rodden said they may have overlooked the amount of money that was spent outside the general fund in last year’s budget. More than $1.07 million was paid at the end of 2010 to balance the sheriff’s budget. The funding came from LOIT, leftover money in the general fund and the commissioners’ cumulative capital fund.

Even though Rodden said he believed a mistake was made when the council underfunded the levy in 2007, the state is being unreasonable in believing the county can operate on the budget it was given. With a total certified budget amount of $11.8 million returned to the council, there was no way to pay for the county’s operational expenses and the sheriff’s full $9.5 million requested budget out of the general fund.

“It’s got to be fixed on the state level,” Rodden said. “If the council would do everything in their power, and I don’t know that they’ve done that yet ... the employees and the office holders would be more inclined to work with them.”