Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning and county commissioners clashed last week over an audit that suggested the sheriff’s office could save $2.9 million a year by reassigning to civilians many positions now staffed by deputies.
The commission-requested audit focuses on finding ways to cut the department’s overtime costs, which were blamed for a budget shortfall that prompted a bailout of the department last year. The department was about $4 million shy of what it needed to get through last year’s budget.
But Denning disputed many of the assertions in the audit, which was presented by interim County Auditor Ken Kleffner at the commission’s meeting Thursday. Savings that come from hiring civilians would be minimal, because turnover and training costs would increase, and standards would be lower, he said. But he agreed that the county should hire more staff to cut overtime hours.
“We summarily reject the County Interim Auditor’s report. The recommendations clearly indicate a lack of expertise in law enforcement, detention management, dispatching and in fact all critical functions of my office,” he said. “The authority does not exist to tell me who to hire, fire or promote.”
The audit was an in-depth study of staffing and pay of dispatchers, escorts and employees at the detention center. “Civilianizing” the sheriff’s workforce was at the top of the recommendation list, but auditors also said the sheriff’s department should have a more well-defined policy on when to approve overtime and better record keeping on the reasons it is approved.
The auditor’s office compared Johnson County with other county and city dispatchers. Most, including Lenexa, Leawood, Prairie Village and Jackson County, use civilian dispatchers rather than deputies. Some others use a mix of civilian and sworn officers.
Johnson County spends more money on dispatcher pay as well. County dispatchers earn $17,343 above the national median, according to the audit.
The audit also recommended civilians serve as escorts, and run the magnetometer and X-ray machines in the courthouse. Those jobs are currently performed by deputies.
The deputies displaced by the civilians in all positions could then be assigned to a relief pool to cover the schedule when an employee is ill or has military service, for example. Currently, those kinds of schedule gaps result in overtime.
The detention center and booking facility have been in the spotlight in past meetings because of overtime hours, and the audit said those facilities still account for a lot of the overtime spending. In 2012 there were 119,000 overtime hours billed from the detention centers, and 2013 was on track to surpass that, the audit said. But the audit found the jail facilities to be staffed at close to the mix of civilian and sworn officers used in other counties. It recommended only seven positions be given to civilians. The centers employ 326 people, 81 percent of whom are deputies.
The audit also was critical of the overtime approval process, saying it lacked documentation and oversight.
Kleffner said records on why overtime was granted and to whom were lacking in the department. Overtime is largely granted on the honor system, the audit said, noting that this makes it vulnerable to error.
About 14 percent of the overtime hours studied in the audit had no supporting documentation, the audit said. Kleffner recommended the sheriff institute stricter policies about when overtime can be granted, divide it equally among employees, put an annual cap on overtime hours worked by deputies and perhaps buy an automated timekeeping machine rather than have employees enter their hours manually.
The sheriff disputed many of the audit’s assertions, however, and disagreed with the notion that replacing deputies with civilians in some positions would save money in the long run. In many cases the civilians don’t earn substantially less than deputies doing the same job, he said. But their higher turnover rates would end up costing the department as much.
But Denning did agree with the audit that more employees need to be added to reduce overtime.
“We have said it, we have hired consultants who have said it, and now your interim county auditor is saying the same thing. The solution to resolve the overtime issues is to add (employees) for a relief factor.” Denning said.
The audit also cited a breakdown in communications between the county and the city of Olathe as the reason for another drain on county funds. According to the audit, the sheriff’s office has provided more than $500,000 of dispatch services to Olathe for the past two years without reimbursement.
The problem harkens back to 2009, when the commission entered into what was to have been a three-year contract to provide services for Olathe. The commission later modified that contract to a shorter time period — 26 months — because there was no reimbursement in the original contract during the third year. The commission asked Olathe to sign off on the change but never received its assent. The county continued to provide the service for 2012 and 2013, however.
The audit brings to the surface tensions that have been simmering for months. The sheriff’s department is independent in that Denning is elected by voters. But the commission has the power of the purse. The two groups have been at odds several times over the sheriff’s budget, and the subject of hiring more civilian employees has come up more than once.
“Now that you have had a chance to look under the hood of the sheriff’s office, I have a few questions to ask of you,” Denning said in prepared remarks. “Did you see anything illegal, immoral, unethical or malfeasant? I didn’t think so. What you saw and found under the hood was a high-performing professional organization meeting our obligations to the public that we serve.”
Last year commissioners asked Denning to try and bring down the costs, to avoid a bailout at the end of the year. But Denning has long maintained that his budget is intentionally underfunded and cannot be sustained.
Denning has resisted the idea of creating more civilian positions, saying it would lower the standards of an office that has become a model for other law enforcement agencies.
“Providing the highest-quality of service is my responsibility, and it is mandated not only by my authority under statute but also by the expectations of my employers,” Denning said. He identified his employers as the voters of Johnson County.
“I have no authority to appropriate funding, but I will always staff the critical functions of my office with the most highly skilled law enforcement professionals available.”
County commissioners received the audit and Denning’s response without much comment. They will discuss the results further at work sessions later in March.