Motive questioned in budget cut
By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer
A 3 to 1 vote by the Swain County Board of Commissioners last week will effectively reduce the salary of the newly elected sheriff.
A large crowd turned out at the commissioners meeting to protest the move. They accused commissioners of retaliating against the new sheriff in a game of partisan politics.
“I don’t think that’s right what they’re doing,” said McKinley Willis, who attended the meeting.
The county claims the move — which stopped a long-standing practice of kick-backs for the sheriff — was not politically motivated. County officials claim it was simply the right time to end a practice that was borderline illegal.
Curtis Cochran narrowly beat long-time Sheriff Bob Ogle by just 92 votes this fall, giving control of the sheriff’s office to a Republican in a county that’s heavily Democratic. Cochran was the only Republican on the ballot to win in Swain County and only the second Republican sheriff in 100 years.
The vote that reduced his salary came just two weeks before Cochran gets sworn into office. That timing led many to question the motives of the three commissioners who voted for it.
“I think it is purely politics,” said Jeffery Fuller, a bail bondsman in Bryson City. “What’s fair for one sheriff should be fair for another sheriff. If they had done this in April, that would be one thing, but doing it after they see who gets elected?”
The last Republican sheriff elected in the county, Bill Lewis, said he, too, was the victim of politically motivated budget cuts to the sheriff’s office during his term in the 1990s.
“It’s the same old story,” Lewis said.
The recent move by commissioners is being sharply criticized on both sides of the political aisle, however, including leaders in the Democratic Party and even outgoing Sheriff Bob Ogle.
“It’s political, it’s radical and it is punitive,” said Jake Hyatt, chairman of the Swain County Democratic Party. “It defies the principles that Democrats stand for, which is why I am speaking out.”
Leaders in the Democratic Party were caught off guard by the move and fear it will reflect poorly on their party if it is perceived as partisan retribution orchestrated by the party at large. Hyatt said that is not the case, that it was spearheaded solely by County Commission Chairman Glenn Jones.
“The party leaders knew nothing about it. We were out of the loop,” Hyatt said. Another local Democratic Party leader who asked not to be named also said the party didn’t know such a move was being pondered. Ogle said he also was unaware of it.
No more kickbacks
While last week’s vote will mean a compensation reduction for Cochran, commissioners didn’t vote to lower his salary outright. The vote ended the current arrangement between the county and the sheriff to provide meals for inmates in the jail.
Historically, the county has contracted with the sheriff to provide meals for inmates. The county paid the sheriff more than it really cost to provide the meals, however. The sheriff kept the surplus and logged it as personal income.
“The sheriff’s salary was supplemented by the contract with the county for feeding the inmates,” Hyatt said. “It was a money maker for the sheriff and the commissioners saw it as a form of compensation for the sheriff.”
As a result, the commissioners set the sheriff’s actual salary quite low — the lowest in the state, in fact. The sheriff’s actual salary — after pocketing the surplus leftover from the meal allotment — is not known. Ogle would not say how much money he made off the arrangement.
The commissioners voted 3 to 1 to end the convoluted system last week. The commissioners voted to contract with Swain County Hospital to provide meals for inmates. The hospital already has the kitchen facilities to prepare large volumes of food for its patients. Contracting with a local hospital to provide meals for inmates has become widespread among counties in North Carolina.
The contract with Swain County Hospital will cost $10.86 per inmate per day. The county was paying Ogle slightly less at $10 per inmate per day. The contract with the hospital includes an automatic review of food and labor costs each year to determine if an increase is warranted.
While the hospital contract costs slightly more on paper, the county will save electricity costs by not running a kitchen. The cooking is done by trustees in the jail, Ogle said.
The right time
The county maintains that now was the right time to end a long-standing practice of kick-backs that was not exactly kosher.
“We are the only county in the state that has this arrangement, and it is an illegal arrangement,” said County Manager Kevin King.
Commission Chairman Glenn Jones did not return phone calls seeking comment. Instead, King took the time to explain the county’s position.
Officially, the county has no record that the sheriff profited from providing meals for inmates, King said.
“There is no record that a sheriff has ever said they make money providing meals to inmates, because if they did it would be going against state law,” King said. “As far as public record, we don’t know if they make money or don’t make money.”
The county does not have an official written contract with the sheriff to provide meals for inmates. The county expects the sheriff to spend the entire allowance of $10 per inmate per day on meals, and if he doesn’t the money should be returned to the county, King said.
In reality, however, that’s not how it worked. The unofficial arrangement allowed the sheriff to keep the surplus as personal income. It caused an accounting nightmare for the county’s financial records.
“You have to have receipts that show how all county disbursements were spent, and I can’t do that right now,” King said. “This is something I have been trying to do for years, straighten out the books.”
While King had long wanted to correct the system, it was not his idea to do it now.
“It is questionable timing,” King said. “But when is the best time to do something like this? When someone new is coming in. It makes sense to me that the new sheriff can concentrate on the job at hand like controlling the drug problem rather than making food for inmates.”
Providing food for inmates had become more time consuming as the number of inmates grew. Ogle could no longer haul food in his pick-up truck, but purchased a trailer to make monthly food hauls from wholesalers.
Ogle occasionally got free bread from grocery stores and discounted food from the USDA commodities program. That was inappropriate since in a way the sheriff was running a for-profit enterprise on the side rather than acting as an agent of the county when purchasing food for inmate meals.
Or questionable timing?
If the county wanted to end the meal arrangement with the sheriff, they should have raised the sheriff’s salary to offset the loss of income, Hyatt said. The proper time to address such a change is in next year’s budget, not in the middle of a fiscal year, Hyatt said.
“If they want to do that they need to provide a reasonable, decent salary for the sheriff,” Ogle said. “The sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer in the county. He deserves to have a salary that compensates him for that.”
Ogle said the salary will discourage good candidates from running for sheriff.
“People won’t be interested in it for that kind of compensation,” Ogle said.
The commissioners could entertain a salary increase if Cochran comes before them with a request.
The county has maintained that the jail meal arrangement has been under study for some time and that its timing is not political. However, plans for a new jail currently under construction call for a full-scale industrial kitchen. Counties that quit doing meals in-house, such as Jackson and Macon counties, didn’t include kitchens when building a new jail. That leads some to question how long commissioners had been pondering an end to in-house meal preparation.
The county has also pointed to advice from its auditor as a reason for ending the practice. However, the county’s auditor objected to the practice several years ago, not just recently. The auditor summarized his standing concerns with the practice in a letter to the county dated Nov. 20 that was apparently prompted by the county.
“We are writing you this letter to try to clear up some information relative to payment of food for prisoners at the jail,” the letter states.
In the letter, the auditor said the meal arrangement with the sheriff had come to his attention “many years ago.” He said he “discouraged this practice and issued a management letter to that effect.”
The auditor had advised the county that “at a minimum,” the sheriff needed to file a personal income tax return for any money he made off the meal contract and consider it a side business not connected to the sheriff’s office budget. For several years, that’s what Ogle has done.
The letter concluded by saying, in effect, the auditor didn’t like the practice when he first discovered it and still doesn’t.
While the meal arrangement is clearly a convoluted way of paying the sheriff, the commissioners knew the practice was problematic for several years but did not decide to act until now.
Commissioner David Monteith, who voted against ending the meals-for-pay arrangement, said he tried to get the county to end the arrangement on two occasions in the past.
“I have brought it up with two different boards and it never went anywhere. It should have been stopped years ago,” Monteith said.
While Monteith supports doing away with the kick-back arrangement, he doesn’t support the politically-motivated timing.
“If they had brought it up three or four months ago and told both candidates this is what we are going to do whoever wins, that would have been alright,” Monteith said.
If such a move was in the works, how come the commissioners hadn’t shared this with the public before now, Hyatt asked?
“There’s not been any communication between the county commissioners and the constituents or with the party,” Hyatt said.
Once word got out, however, two of the top leaders in the local Democratic Party met with Jones before the meeting last week and tried unsuccessfully to talk him out of going forward with the vote. Hyatt said he was disappointed that Jones has shown little regard for public sentiment on the issue.
Hyatt said communication with the public has always been a weak point for Jones as chairman of the commissioners. Jones won re-election this fall by a slim 184 votes. Two newly elected commissioners, Steve Moon and Philip Carson, will take seats on the board in December. Both are Democrats and will replace sitting Democrats, but Hyatt said he looks forward to the new make-up of the board.
“I am confident we will have a more open board,” Hyatt said.
Skirting the line
According to state law, it is illegal for a board of county commissioners to “reduce the salary, allowances or other compensation” of the sheriff in an election year unless the commissioners state their intention to do so prior to the sign-up period for candidates. The law presumes that candidates for elected office should have a reasonable idea of what their salary would be before they put their name in the hat to run. The sign-up period for candidates was back in February.
Taking away kick-backs from jail meal services technically doesn’t count as reducing the sheriff’s salary, allowances or compensation, however. The auditors told the county any profit the sheriff makes off the meals should be considered “self employment income rather than compensation for services.”
Since the arrangement was well-known, however, some argue the surplus from the meal allotment was viewed as an official part of the sheriff’s compensation for all intents and purposes.
Sheriff’s salaries as of January 2006
County, Population, Salary
Swain 9,000 $39,600
Graham 8,000 $40,000
Cherokee 25,000 $44,000
Macon 31,000 $55,000
Jackson 34,000 $62,400
Haywood 67,000 $67,000
Madison 18,000 $50,000
Polk 19,000 $52,700