View Full Version : Charlotte Sheriff is thrifty despite good pay

09-09-2007, 10:37 AM
Article published Sep 9, 2007

First public hearing: Monday, 7 p.m., County Administration Building, 1660 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.

Second and final hearing: Sept. 24, 7 p.m., Robert L. Anderson Administration Center, 4000 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice.

Information: (941) 861-5000.

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Charlotte Sheriff is thrifty despite good pay
As budgets boomed, perks ballooned in Manatee

Sarasota Sheriff's budget and perks grow


SARASOTA COUNTY -- In early May, at the same time Sarasota County's sheriff and county administrator argued over the size of the law enforcement budget, Sheriff Bill Balkwill leased a new car for himself.

He picked a 2007 Ford Expedition, the Eddie Bauer model. His sport utility vehicle, leased with taxpayer dollars, came loaded with extras like climate controlled leather seats and a $2,000 navigation system.

The price tag, according to the one-year lease agreement: $1,366 a month, an amount that likely exceeds many of his officers' mortgage payments.

Balkwill told the Herald-Tribune he returned the vehicle -- his fourth in six months -- for a cheaper one immediately after learning how much it cost.

His new GMC Yukon cost less than half as much per month, but still came with Bose luxury speakers, a navigation system and a rearview camera to make backing up easier.

When it comes to public money, the sheriff's office is unique among local government agencies in Florida. Under state law, it is exempt from the level of outside scrutiny commonplace in other agencies, leaving the sheriff as the ultimate arbiter of whether an expense is justified.

But scrutiny is just what taxpayers, state lawmakers and citizens groups have called for in the wake of a five-year real estate boom that kept government coffers overflowing.

For the first time in years, the combination of the real estate bust and a state-mandated tax reduction has forced local governments to cut back, triggering a renewed focus on responsible spending.

The vehicles are a tiny fraction of the sheriff's $88 million annual budget, but they are among the questionable expenses the Herald-Tribune found in a review of spending during the real estate boom.

The newspaper focused on places where auditors might find abuse: government-issued credit cards, expense reports, the payroll and take-home vehicles. Though not as complete as an audit by accounting professionals, the newspaper review was more detailed than any by an outside organization in recent memory, Balkwill said.

Records obtained from the Sarasota Sheriff's Office gave no indication of widespread abuse, but the Herald-Tribune did find:

Balkwill and members of his command stayed at hotels for as much as $260 per night, even with less expensive options nearby.

The agency spends more than $1,200 each year on annual fees for its 51 purchase cards, and in November 2003 was hit with $1,050 in late fees when it forgot to pay the bills.

The office has spent about $14 million in overtime over the last four years, enough money to pay 70 new employees $50,000 in salary and benefits each of those years. The deputy with the most overtime during that period -- more than $40,000 a year -- is also responsible for choosing who fills overtime slots for the sheriff's road patrol.

Other top staff members are also assigned leased SUVs, even though their primary duties do not include hauling equipment, a police dog or a boat. Chief Deputy Larry Dunklee drives a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe with an upgraded sound system, rear parking assistance and a remote vehicle starter.

Sarasota County Administrator Jim Ley said the examples uncovered by the Herald-Tribune illustrate a lack of financial oversight at the Sheriff's Office.

"Unfortunately, I'd say it doesn't surprise me," Ley said.

County commissioners shot down Balkwill's original request in June for a $4.6 million budget increase, so he eliminated 15 sworn deputies and slashed his travel budget to cut the request to $1.1 million. But the County Commission rejected that, too, and Balkwill countered Wednesday with a plan to close the South County jail.

The impasse will play out Monday night, when county commissioners meet in Sarasota to hold their first of two public budget hearings.

Commissioners have criticized the growth of Balkwill's budget, but over the past four years the sheriff's budget has grown more slowly than the rest of the county's.

Balkwill maintains that he has been a good steward of taxpayer money and that he and his finance staff review all spending.

"Are there mistakes made? Absolutely," he said.

Sheriffs have special power

Sarasota County's clerk acts as an extra set of independent eyes that oversee most of county government.

The clerk's financial staff reviews every item bought with the 850 purchase cards assigned to county parks, public works and other parts of county government. It can question any purchase and, if necessary, revoke cards misused by employees. The clerk's office also has the authority to perform detailed audits that look for more efficient ways to spend tax dollars or monitor costs.

But as constitutional officers, sheriffs do not fall under the same system of external financial checks and balances as other government agencies.

Though the state statute has been disputed, attorney general opinions back the idea that county clerks are prohibited from performing anything more than a basic annual financial audit on the sheriff's spending. That means the clerk's auditors can make sure that money allocated for vehicles was actually spent on vehicles, but only the sheriff has the power to decide he should drive a $20,000 sedan instead of a $40,000 SUV.

The sheriff also has the power to invite the clerk in for a detailed look at department spending. Balkwill told the Herald-Tribune he would have no problem with such scrutiny, but said he had never extended an official invitation.

Like Sarasota, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office also equipped some staff members with high-end SUVs.

Before leaving office this year, former sheriff Charlie Wells spent nearly $170,000 on five new Chevy Tahoes, including one for his media liaison and one for his executive assistant. But in Charlotte County, Sheriff John Davenport has taken a more frugal approach with his fleet. His own car is a $20,500 Crown Victoria, and he said it is "too expensive" to have his command staff in SUVs.

Dominic Calabro, the president of Florida Tax Watch, said if one sheriff is able to make do without an SUV, it is an indication they all can. Government officials always need to be mindful that their expensive junkets and vehicles are paid with the "sweat of the brow" of hardworking taxpayers, he said.

"When you're spending the public's dollars, you need to have that sensitivity," Calabro said. "They could accomplish the same thing with considerable reduced expense."

Expensive fleet

It is unclear how Balkwill got the Expedition, an SUV he eventually spent more than $2,700 to drive for a month because of the penalty fee to break the lease.

According to Balkwill, the Expedition was a mistake by Steve Meadows, his now-retired fleet manager. Balkwill said Meadows told him he got a deal on the Expedition for about $500 a month, which was $100 cheaper than the GMC Yukon the sheriff leased the month before. So Balkwill said he took the Expedition in May and gave his Yukon to another officer.

Soon after, David Gustafson, a Balkwill critic who is running for sheriff in 2008, filed a public records request asking for a copy of the Expedition lease agreement. Despite internal controls designed to catch aberrant spending, Balkwill confirmed that it was Gustafson's request that triggered the first realization the Expedition cost more than twice as much a month as his Yukon.

"I blew a gasket," Balkwill said.

Meadows, who retired in May after 26 years, told a different story.

He said as fleet manager, he would send the tickets from Mears Motor Leasing that included make, model and the price over to the Sheriff's Office. Then, once he was told which cars to lease, he would sign the agreements. Meadows said he did not discuss price with the sheriff. He added that he never leased a vehicle without verbal approval.

"Fleet doesn't have that much power," he said.

The size of the lease payment, though, was a subject of conversation in the fleet office, Meadows said.

"A couple of times I said something -- this is not cool," Meadows recalled.

Regardless of how he got the Expedition, it was at least the fourth vehicle assigned to Balkwill in six months.

He turned in his 2006 Chevrolet Tahoe last December and started the new year with a leased 2007 Ford F-150. Then he traded up in April for the 2007 Yukon before upgrading again a month later for the Expedition.

"I trade my cars all the time," Balkwill said, explaining that it is related to his own security from threats.

Balkwill said the SUVs will prove invaluable after floods or to get over the debris that blocks roads after a hurricane. He said his department's SUVs were able to help out in Charlotte and DeSoto counties after Hurricane Charley struck in 2004. But Charlotte Sheriff Davenport said his lack of an SUV did not hinder his agency after Charley because of the trucks and SUVs already in the fleet. Davenport said that in the aftermath of another hurricane, he can park his Crown Victoria and use one of the larger vehicles assigned to the K-9 or marine units.

The same opportunity exists in Sarasota County. While the majority of vehicles owned or leased by the department are typical police cruisers, there are more than 80 Yukons, Tahoes, Silverados, Astro vans and other SUVs, pickups and vans in the fleet.

Meadows said on several occasions during his tenure, he got no response to his suggestion that the department could save money if it stopped leasing so many SUVs and instead bought cheaper vehicles.

Hotel rooms and overtime

Travel and overtime are often political targets for examples of wasteful spending, but it is not always that clear-cut.

Officers sometimes need to travel to a conference to learn the latest law enforcement techniques. And in some cases, it is more cost-efficient to pay a veteran officer time and a half instead of hiring, training and equipping a rookie.

But both areas can drain the budget if spending is not tightly controlled.

Over the last two years, Balkwill and members of his staff stayed at the J.W. Marriott, a Washington, D.C., hotel, at least three times at a cost of up to $260 per night. Taxpayers also paid about $1,300 for Balkwill's five-night stay at Orlando's Peabody in June 2006.

Balkwill said he stayed at those hotels because that was where the conferences were held. When it was suggested he might find a nearby hotel in Orlando for $50 per night, Balkwill said he doubted he could get a hotel in Orlando at that price.

However, a recent search on Expedia.com showed more than 40 hotels in the Orlando area renting rooms for less than $50 a night, including two within a mile of the Peabody.

As for overtime, the sheriff has paid out an average of $3 million over the past four years, with 26 employees getting more than $20,000 of it each year. The largest share of that money went to Deputy Jeffrey Harris, who has boosted his base pay about $40,000 each year by racking up the extra hours. The additional salary has made Harris one of the agency's best paid employees, and he has earned more than most of the command staff in recent years.

Harris also happens to be in charge of deciding who fills overtime positions on the road patrol.

Despite the appearance of a conflict, Major Skip Rossi -- the department's top financial officer -- said the deputies union has never complained about Harris getting more overtime than others.

County Commissioner Joe Barbetta complained recently about the high overtime numbers, noting that Balkwill could save money by hiring more deputies to avoid paying so much overtime.

Balkwill told the Herald-Tribune he is considering ways to reduce overtime costs, including changes to the zones patrolled by officers.

But the sheriff added that the easiest way to cut overtime may be to reduce service.


Staff writers Michael Braga, Anthony Cormier and Patrick Whittle contributed to this report.

09-09-2007, 10:45 AM
Article published Sep 9, 2007

Coralrose's mom takes cause to the state capital


Before Sept. 17, 2006, Ellen-Beth Fullwood had no interest or need to travel to the state capital.

Before that day, she paid little attention to DNA backlogs.

But that was before her daughter, Coralrose, 6, was found dead only a few blocks away from the family's North Port home.

Like other parents who have lost a child, Fullwood is trying to turn the tragedy into a cause.

So this afternoon, Fullwood plans to drive to Tallahassee for the second time in a year. And for the second time in a year she will attend a meeting in the governor's office.

There, she will meet Monday with members of Gov. Charlie Crist's staff to discuss the state's DNA backlog. She believes the DNA evidence found on her daughter's body -- the best clue to identifying her killer -- might be trapped in that backlog.

"How many families are sitting around (waiting)?" she said. "It's become a part of my life now."

For parents like Fullwood, joining an organization or shining light on an issue can be a way of grieving and moving forward, said Nancy McBride, the National Safety Director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

That has been true for Claudine and Don Ryce, whose 9-year-old son Jimmy was abducted by gunpoint, raped and murdered a mile away from their home in Miami-Dade County in 1995.

Since then, the Ryces have dedicated their lives to protecting children and getting them home safe. In 1998, Florida lawmakers passed the Jimmy Ryce Act, which created a program to keep the state's most violent sexual predators locked up indefinitely for mental-health treatment after they serve their prison sentences.

"If your child is dead, you can no longer help your child," Claudine said. "But you can honor your child by protecting other children."

Fullwood, Ryce and a number of other parents will attend "Missing Children's Day" on Monday at the state house. The event is held during the second week in September every year in memory of Jimmy Ryce.

Fullwood said she is bringing four of her surviving six children with her, because she wants them to understand they are not the only family coping with a tragedy.

She hopes to meet other parents, hear their stories and expand her network.

One parent she will likely meet is John Walsh, the host of "America's Most Wanted" and one of the most vocal and visible advocates for child safety.

His 6-year-old son Adam was abducted and murdered in 1981. The murder remains unsolved.

Together with his wife, Walsh helped create the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which provides resources and support to parents, children and law enforcement.

McBride cautioned that every parent should not be expected to be as outspoken as the Ryce or Walsh families.

"Parents have a different level of grieving," McBride said. "Not every parent is going to jump on board right away. They may not feel strong enough."

Patrick Sessions, whose daughter Tiffany has been missing for 18 years, has not launched any national campaigns or pushed for new legislation.

Instead he prefers to work behind the scenes with parents who have just learned that their child is missing.

Sessions, who lives in Coconut Grove, is often called in by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to help parents understand what they should be doing and what to expect.

Sessions said that is what Walsh did for him when Tiffany disappeared in 1989.

"I really focus on the families," Sessions said. "What would my child want me to do?"