By BRADEN LAMMERS
Clark County Circuit Court Judge Dan Moore issued a preliminary injunction and ordered mediation for the county to figure out a way to fund the Clark County Sheriff’s Department.
The injunction forces the Clark County Council to continue to fund operations for the department and keeps the Clark County Commissioners from denying Sheriff Danny Rodden’s payroll or claims, as they have threatened to do because the county was spending too far into a deficit.
The county has been faced with a shortfall after the certified budget order was returned in March by the Department of Local Government Finance for $7 million less than what was requested. As a result, budgets for county offices were cut 10 percent by the council.
In the petition filed by Michelle Cooper, attorney for Rodden, he requests that the county restore the $1.6 million that was cut out of his budget in March. The sheriff will need a minimum of $1.34 million to meet his payroll obligations for the remainder of this year, according to the petition.
“The sheriff sees this as a dire emergency,” Cooper said. “He does not want to be put in a position of having to close the jail facility, he has many statutory obligations ... he would be unable to meet these obligations and continue to provide the appropriate police functions — and even court-related functions that the sheriff’s department serves — if the money is depleted.”
To offer an example of how strapped the sheriff’s budget is, Cooper said after paying his Aug. 10 payroll, Rodden had a remainder of $105,000 to pay the salaries of the jail’s employees. The sheriff’s payroll, which is bi-weekly, totals more than $120,000 for only the jail’s employees.
The financial strains facing Rodden’s department were not disputed by the council or the commissioners, who were both named in the petition filed by Rodden.
“We acknowledge unless there is some kind of change in either funding or services that it will be difficult for the sheriff to continue on the services [his department] is providing now,” said Scott Lewis, attorney for the council.
Greg Fifer, attorney for the commissioners, agreed, but added his own filing to the suit submitted by Rodden. He filed a cross-claim requesting that the sheriff pay back $192,587 to the commissioners’ Cumulative Capital Development fund used in late December to cover a shortfall in the jail’s operating expenses.
Fifer added, before the ruling was delivered, that Moore did not need to make a decision at Wednesday’s hearing, because based on the information that financial consultants have been able to gather, the general fund will not be fully depleted until mid-October.
However, Moore did not delay his decision ordering the injunction and ordering mediation. He also set a date for a hearing at 10 a.m. Nov. 10 if a resolution is unable to be reached between the parties.
The decision will now fall to the three entities to work out an agreement that is acceptable. Fifer said he was optimistic a deal could be reached in a few weeks, although no mediation date has been set.
“Nobody wants to unfairly burden taxpayers,” he said. “There can be no more essential function than making sure the jail stays open and the sheriff has police protection out there. The trick is going to be finding an agreement that everybody feels like they’ve done their duty to protect the public, while not unduly burdening the taxpayers.
“And I don’t know where that number is. That’s going to be between the council and the commissioners to determine what that number is.”
No county officials would offer an estimate of what that figure might be.
County Council President Kevin Vissing said because of pending litigation, he would not discuss the ruling Wednesday.
“We are bound to abide by the rules of mediation, that the process is confidential from here on out,” Lewis said. “If an agreement is reached, obviously that will come back before the appropriate boards for public approval.”
Because of the county’s financial crisis and how the mandate might affect other county offices, a resolution is needed quickly in order for officials to be able to keep expenses within the levy funding that is expected to come in the fall settlement.
Fifer said the commissioners were not opposed to running in the red as long as the county is assured by its financial advisers that at the end of the year the funds will balance.
“We’re not going to go from how lax financial controls were in this county in past years to being perfect on all fronts right now, but we are going to follow the law and end up not being in the red at the end of the year,” he said.
A question also remains on how a mandated tax rate will affect the county.
“We will attempt to resolve it outside the levy, but the DLGF will have the final say on that,” Lewis said of a mandated tax rate.
If the tax rate is inside the levy, it would force the council to fund the sheriff’s department out of the money the county receives in the general fund first, and then be able to look to fund the other offices in the county. With a $9.5 million requested budget from the sheriff in 2011, and a certified amount returned to the entire county of $11.8 million, only $2.3 million would remain to be split across all of the other county offices.
However, Fifer said the rate would fall outside of the county’s regular levy, but would count against the county’s tax caps.
“It’s outside the levy, but it’s subject to the [state’s property] tax caps,” he said. “It would create additional tax cap problems for everybody because it’s a levy that doesn’t exist today. [And] whatever the tax rate is you won’t really receive that [amount] because of the tax caps.”
In essence, if a new levy is implemented, it will come at the expense of the already-established levy.
Fifer said he would not be able to predict the actual amount the sheriff’s department would receive.
“I have no way of forecasting what that is,” he said.
County officials said a 1 cent tax rate per $100 of assessed evaluation generates about $400,000 in revenue for the county. If the full amount was awarded to cover the $1.6 million cut out of Rodden’s budget, the rate would be a one time, 4-cent levy, Fifer said. If the commissioners’ counter-claim was added to the mandate, it could raise the levy to 5 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Looking forward, negotiations may also include what the sheriff will need in order to fund his operations for 2012.
But until the council — which is in the middle of its 2012 budget sessions — determines budgets for all of the county offices, it will not know how much it can grant to the sheriff’s department. Until that figure is determined, the council will not know if a mandate will also be needed in 2012 to continue to cover expenses.
The mediation order will allow for the entities to discuss the possibility of issuing a mandate large enough to cover expenses next year.
“Operating in a constant state of crisis is not free,” Fifer said. “We’ve got to get back at some point to something like a normal environment to operate in, so I think that’s what the judge was trying to provide. Nobody blames the sheriff for the result that looks to be inevitable.
“I don’t think he had any realistic choice but to do this.”