View Full Version : CHARLOTTE COUNTY -- Sheriff John Davenport is the top office

09-09-2007, 07:50 PM
CHARLOTTE COUNTY -- Sheriff John Davenport is the top officer in a department with a $54 million budget, and he takes pride in his judicious use of his constituents' tax dollars.

Davenport's taxpayer-funded work vehicle is a $20,500 Crown Victoria, a car most of the county's residents would consider affordable.

That choice alone is a stark contrast to the county's northern neighbors. Using tax dollars, Sarasota Sheriff Bill Balkwill recently leased himself a $1,366-per-month Ford Expedition, and former Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells' executive assistant is assigned a $43,300 Chevrolet Tahoe.

But while Davenport has been frugal about how he spends money, his total budget has expanded dramatically over the past five years with the blessing of county government.

As a result, total sheriff's employee salaries in Charlotte County rose 62.2 percent, from $16.4 million in 2002 to $26.6 million in 2007.

That is twice as fast as in Manatee and Sarasota during the same time period, and is about three times faster than the 20.7 percent rise in Charlotte County's population plus inflation.

In addition, the average salary per employee in the Charlotte Sheriff's Office rose nearly twice as fast as their counterparts in Manatee and Sarasota. And at $48,014, the average salary per sheriff's employee in Charlotte County is now the highest in the region.

Sheriff's officials said salaries needed to increase to keep up with other agencies in the area. But even advocates of the sheriff's growth plan say the budget could be tightened.

"Though public safety has been prioritized, in the future, we have to have more of a balance," said Ray Sandrock, Charlotte County's budget director.

When it comes to taxpayer money, the sheriff's office is unique among local government agencies in Florida. Under state law, it is exempt from the kind 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 Herald-Tribune examined sheriff's spending during the real estate boom, focusing on places where auditors might find abuse: government-issued credit cards, expense reports, the payroll and take-home vehicles.

Davenport acknowledged that the newspaper's review, though not as complete as an audit conducted by accounting professionals, was more detailed than any in recent memory by an outside organization.

Records obtained from the Charlotte Sheriff's Office gave no indication of widespread misuse of the agency's $54 million annual budget. The Herald-Tribune found only minor items, such as:

The department paid $200 for two officers' National Rifle Association memberships in 2005. The sheriff promised to investigate whether the expense was necessary.

The department spent $203 on dinner and drinks at Smugglers, a Punta Gorda seafood restaurant, for jail accreditation assessors in 2006.

Davenport and other members of the department's command staff have spent $1,070 on window tinting for their vehicles since 2001.

Davenport said he would have no problem submitting his agency's finances for an audit, and he welcomes anyone to review the Sheriff's Office's books.

"It's taxpayer dollars," Davenport said. "We're not perfect, but I don't think you're going to find a widespread abuse of taxpayer dollars being flushed down the toilet."

Sheriffs have unique power

Charlotte 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 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 that he should drive a $20,000 sedan instead of a $40,000 sport utility vehicle.

The Sarasota and Manatee County sheriff's pffices have equipped some staff members with high-end SUVs. Before leaving office last year, former Sheriff 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, Davenport takes a more frugal approach. He said it is just "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."

Charlotte thrifty

Balkwill, the Sarasota sheriff, points to the lessons of natural disasters such as Hurricane Charley: If you do not have heavy vehicles after a storm, you are in trouble, he said.

Davenport, who heads the agency that was responsible for public safety after Charley hit in 2004, said his agency had no problems getting around.

The Charlotte fleet had plenty of trucks and SUVs that are usually used for hauling boats, transporting dogs and carrying SWAT equipment. The department used those to navigate debris and flooded streets, he said.

Other expenses by the Charlotte Sheriff's Office show that the agency spent money to save money.

It purchased a $121 hotel room for a Citrus County man in December 2006. The Sheriff's Office set the man up with a room because he donated a bloodhound, which can cost more than $4,000, to the department's K-9 unit.

And at first glance, the sheriff's deal with the Punta Gorda Club could raise eyebrows. Officers can work out at the orange stucco, $55 dollar-per-month racket club for free because of a deal in which the department has paid the health club more than $15,000 since 2003.

But the relationship does not cost taxpayers any more than if officers worked out at the Punta Gorda YMCA. The contract breaks down to $20 per member monthly, and officers who stop going every week have to pay their own dues.

The gym memberships help the Sheriff's Office avoid costly insurance payouts if deputies are healthy, Davenport said.

"It was an embarrassment for a number of years because citizens were asking us, 'You have these fat deputies; how can they run anyone down?" Davenport said.

Working overtime

The Charlotte agency has spent about $4 million in overtime since 2001, which breaks down to about $700,000 per year or $5,000 per officer. Sarasota has averaged $3 million per year and Manatee about $2.5 million per year.

"We've been crunched in the last couple of years, but even then we've been okay with the overtime budget," Davenport said.

Charlotte's salaries and overtime payments show the stress of keeping the growth of the Sheriff's Office in step with the county's population. Salaries in the department have grown at a much faster rate in Charlotte than agencies in Sarasota and Manatee.

Both officials in the Sheriff's Office and in the county administration attributed the rapid rise to a five-year plan designed to increase the number of deputies to two per 1,000 county residents.

They also said salaries had to increase because of competition with nearby police departments, as well as the extremely low rate of unemployment in the region in general. That pushed up average wages for all of Charlotte County by 56 percent to $39,000 during the five-year period that ended in 2006.

"Part of the issue is that the starting level for sheriff's deputies was so low that the department became a breeding ground for county and city police departments to the north and south," said Sandrock, Charlotte County's budget director.

Davenport said the department may need to expand its finance division because one employee, Gio Orbe, has earned more overtime than several officers put together.

Orbe has earned $66,000 in overtime since 2001 because she is the only payroll person in the department's finance division.

For now, it makes more fiscal sense for the department to work one person hard than to pay the salary and benefits for a new employee, Davenport said.

Davenport said that kind of conservative money management will help Charlotte County get through a rough economic time.

"We make sure when we ask for something, we really do need it," Davenport said. "We pay taxes here just like everyone else."


Staff writers Michael Braga, Anthony Cormier and Doug Sword contributed to this report.