Commissioners Concerned About Projected Budget Shortfall at Sheriff’s Office

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The Sweetwater County Commissioners expressed concern today over a projected budget shortfall within the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office.

Chairman Reid West told the Commissioners that the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office is projected to go over the payroll budget by $291,000 this fiscal year. Sheriff Mike Lowell issued a statement disputing the $291,000 figure. Click here to see his statement. 

West acknowledged about $103,000 of the overage can be attributed to five new positions approved by the Commissioners and already planned for a budget amendment. He said an additional $188,000 in overage remains. West did not mention the holiday bonus referenced in Sheriff Lowell’s statement.

“It appears that some of it is due to paying out accrued comp time and over on overtime, and it’s unclear why he has not done what’s primarily been done in the past with giving them comp time instead of paying overtime and why the comp time was paid out,” said West.

West said the overall budget for the Sheriff’s Office is close to this year’s budgeted amount, partly because Sheriff Lowell hasn’t spent some of the capital budget.

“However, you can’t underspend capital and use that money to overspend payroll,” said West. “Overall, you have to stay within your payroll budget, your operating budget, your capital budget, and so forth.”

Commissioner John Kolb said he also believed that the budget required the Sheriff’s Office to stay with certain categories like payroll, capital and operating budgets. He said the flexibility within the payroll budget limited itself to how much would be paid to patrol versus the amount paid to detention.

“When it comes to a policy change and—say accruals or comp time—that affects the budget. It seems that we should have a conversation about the County’s policy when it comes to this,” said Kolb. “So we wouldn’t just allow a department head to make a change that would affect their budget in a negative way, and we would have to deal with the consequences when we weren’t part of that decision.”

Kolb noted that the Commission has made budget amendments for emergencies and unforeseen circumstances,  but said payroll issues such as this are not unforeseen.

“I think that once the Sheriff has agreed to the budget, I think he has an obligation to keep that budget,” said Commissioner Wally Johnson.

Johnson asked County Attorney Daniel Erramouspe what the ramifications can be for a department which doesn’t meet its budgetary obligations.

Erramouspe said this is an issue which he is currently looking into and he could not offer a legal opinion at this time. He said he would like to meet with Sheriff Mike Lowell to discuss the situation and see what options are present.

Commissioner Wendling said he would like to make sure there is not an existing policy or guideline for this topic before moving forward with any action.

Commissioner Van Matre said he hopes the options presented by legal advice were not too limiting and could allow some wiggle room. He said he looks forward to finding out what the Commissioners can do in the current situation.

Commissioner West questioned if the Commissioners can continue writing checks to go toward payroll if no budget amendment is made before the funds are spent.

“I think it raises some other questions. You know, we appropriated x dollars. So, what happens when it’s been used up, it’s expended?” asked West. “What happens? I would think, unless it’s been amended, there’s no more checks being written against that.”

Commissioner Kolb said there are employees who depend on the payroll checks. He said it’s unfortunate that the Commissioners are “backed into a corner” when this kind of thing happens.

“Any changes that we make mid-stream that affects the ability to continue running for a fiscal year is a very big deal,” said Kolb.

Chairman West requested that the projected budget shortfall at the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office be added to the agenda for the next meeting. That meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 17th in the Commissioners Chambers at the Sweetwater County Courthouse in Green River.