Two of Jackson County’s top elected officials are sparring over a new report that alleges mismanagement of the 30-year-old Community-Backed Anti-Crime Tax.
The back-and-forth comes as the county legislature gets its first chance to discuss the COMBAT report at its weekly meeting Monday afternoon at the downtown courthouse is Kansas City.
County Executive Frank White started things off when he sent out a news release around 5 p.m. Friday, along with a copy of a letter he’d sent to the national accounting firm that wrote the report. In both, White demanded that the firm, BKD, retract the report until the firm fixes what White said were numerous errors, omissions and misleading statements contained within it.
He also criticized County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who oversees COMBAT, for allegedly not getting BKD’s approval before releasing the report to the public.
“County staff continue to review the report for additional errors,” the news release said, “and are committed to working with BKD, and others, to ensure that all inaccurate information is corrected. Until that time, the County Executive says the community should not rely upon the contents of the report.”
Baker and COMBAT Director Vince Ortega fired back an hour later with their own press release, defending the accuracy of the report and saying that BKD was aware the report was going to be released to the public on Wednesday.
“In our own meeting this afternoon with BKD,” the statement began, “BKD confirmed that the only specific alleged inaccuracy identified by County Executive Frank White’s office was information given to them by the County Executive’s office.”
White’s statement did not cite specific errors, nor did he question the report’s key finding, which was that he and his predecessor, Mike Sanders, had for years used revenues from the quarter-cent sales tax to pay for things that have nothing to do with its core missions of fighting drug-related crime and violence. When The Star asked White about that via Twitter Friday evening, he did not answer the question directly.
In a public tweet, he wrote, “All funds before they can be used have to be approved by the county legislature. The executive can spend up to five thousand without their approval and twenty five thousand in an emergency situation.”.
BKD’s report said White’s administration used COMBAT money to help buy a new, county-owned pickup truck for the exclusive use of White’s chief of staff. That purchase was broken into several small appropriations that did not need to go before the legislature for approval. That was when the limit was $10,000 instead of the current $5,000 that White referenced.
No criminality is alleged in the report, but the money was not always spent appropriately, BKD said.
County departments that receive a regular allocation from the more than $20 million that COMBAT raises each year commingled those dollars with other income streams to pay salaries, benefits and other routine expenses without specifying how those expenditures related to helping reduce drug abuse and violent crime.
The audit also found that the county’s finance department under White and Sanders had a pattern of underestimating how much the tax would bring in each year. The county distributed a set percentage of COMBAT revenue to the courts, law enforcement and other public agencies based on a formula adopted by the county legislature in the 1990s.
But when revenues exceeded projections, the excess was not split up the same way. It was put in a reserve fund that could be used for emergency repairs or to fund special projects that might not have any connection to COMBAT.
The state auditor’s office is at work on its own review of the fund as part of an overall audit of county government. Baker commissioned BKD’s review after the legislature voted to put the prosecutor’s office in charge of the COMBAT program. That’s where it was before 2008, when the county executive was put in charge.
Legislators voted for the change after raising concerns about how COMBAT money was being spent.
Baker is scheduled to discuss the BKD report with the legislature at its meeting Monday afternoon.