Sheriff threatens county commission with court action over funding

05/27/2014 6:16 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Disagreements between the Johnson County Commission and Sheriff Frank Denning over the budget have escalated to the point that Denning has threatened court action if his department’s budget needs are not met.

Denning sent a memo to the seven commissioners, as well as the county manager, director of budget and chief counsel last week saying his department has been underfunded for the past six years and asking for money to provide a relief pool to cut overtime.

“If the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office budget funding and staffing needs for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 are not met, I will have no recourse but to file a mandamus action seeking a court order for the funding necessary to fulfill my statutory duties,” the letter said.

A writ of mandamus is an order for a public authority to do something it is required by law to do.

Denning sent the memo a day after receiving word from the county budget office that the staff recommendation for his funding would cover only half of the amount requested for overtime and would be funded by a proposed mill levy increase of 0.376 mills.

In a note Denning shared with The Star, budget analyst Leslie Friedel said the county manager’s proposed budget also would include a little over $1 million to hire 20 more civilians that Denning had requested. No mention was made of the 22 additional deputies Denning requested at the same time.

The note was an internal working document on the budget proposal, which has not been finalized, said county spokeswoman Jody Hanson. The budget proposal from County Manager Hannes Zacharias is expected the week of June 2.

Denning’s letter is the latest development in an ongoing dispute over how the sheriff’s department should deal with shortfalls in its budget, largely due to overtime pay. Denning has said that because of the county’s tight financial situation, he’s gone along for the past few years with a budget that does not fully fund his staffing needs, with the understanding that shortfalls would be made up at the end of the year with general fund reserves.

That lack of staff has caused big overtime expenses. This year, Denning said, his department may have an $3 million shortfall at the end of the year because of overtime. Denning and some commissioners have agreed that more staff earning regular pay would cut the costs of overtime, which is paid at time-and-a-half.

But there is where any agreement often ends. A county audit suggested that Denning make the savings by reassigning deputies who now work in dispatch to a relief pool. The deputies could then be replaced by civilians, according to the audit.

Denning has steadfastly rejected that idea, because he prefers deputies from a public safety standpoint. He also has said it would not save much money because of the turnover rate of civilian dispatchers.

The commission can tell the sheriff’s department how much money it will get, but not specifically how it should be spent. A few weeks ago, Denning, saying he is also concerned with getting the budget under control, proposed a compromise of sorts. He would replace 20 jail deputies, not dispatch deputies, with civilians, reassigning those deputies to a relief pool. If funds were freed up to hire 22 more deputies this year, overtime could be cut enough to eliminate the shortfall in a couple of years, according to sheriff’s department figures.

However, commissioners balked. When the issue came up at a recent meeting, they deferred action. Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said at the time he had reservations about hiring the additional deputies. Other commissioners expressed concerns about how revenue decreases from the end of the mortgage registration fee would affect the budget.

Denning said he has made other efforts to cut costs as well. Beginning June 1, sheriff’s deputies will no longer provide a service for cities that transports arrestees on state warrants to court. That will make things difficult for smaller cities with limited vehicles and will end up costing them more, he said.

He also said a levy increase for the sheriff’s department is not necessary and seems like political posturing in an election year. “That’s not being straight and transparent with the voters,” he said.

Eilert said he hoped Denning will take a careful look at the county manager’s final budget proposal before making judgments.

“I think the county manager recommendations almost fully respond to the sheriff’s request,” he said, but he would not detail those recommendations until they are released the week of June 2.

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