By DOTTY NIST
Over four months after his first request, Walton County Sheriff Ralph Johnson has now been approved to roll forward $311,431 from fiscal year 2007 funds to pay for recently-installed upgrades to his office’s Motorola 911 system.
The request was approved in a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Meadows, Brannon and Pridgen voting in favor and commissioners Comander and Jones voting no.
A Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) public hearing was required for approval of a budget amendment to roll forward the amount, which had been included in the sheriff’s previous fiscal year’s budget.
Johnson had first scheduled a public hearing on the matter for Feb. 26 but had not been present when the item was considered. Instead, it was presented by Capt. Eddie Farris of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO).
Farris had explained that the $311,431 had been included in the 2007 fiscal year budget, and that it had been expected that the equipment installation would be complete within that fiscal year. Instead, delays had pushed completion into the 2008 fiscal year, he stated.
At that hearing, District 2 Commissioner Ken Pridgen and citizens in attendance had voiced concern that the sheriff was not present to present information on the request and answer questions. District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones had stated that in his opinion the sheriff should be able to fund the expense from his current year budget. After considerable discussion, the commissioners had voted unanimously to deny the request as presented.
Johnson had then appealed to the Florida Administration Commission, consisting of Gov. Charlie Crist and his cabinet, to direct the BCC to approve the budget amendment. The outcome of a meeting between that commission, Johnson and the BCC was a direction to the parties to schedule additional meetings and attempt to resolve the matter between themselves.
At the July 8 BCC hearing, Johnson called the 911 upgrade “a critical public safety issue.” He continued, “When someone calls 911, they expect an immediate response.”
Johnson explained that, when the equipment had not been installed at the end of fiscal year 2007, he had returned the $311,411 to the county treasurer, at the direction of his auditor, with the expectation that the BCC would restore the funds once the equipment installation was completed and the bill came due.
“I am looking for a positive outcome today,” Johnson said.
On his behalf, local attorney Matthew Burns presented the BCC with documentation on the expense, including a purchase requisition, purchase order, the sheriff’s office 2007 audit, and additional documents to justify the acquisition of the equipment.
“We feel it should be paid simply by giving the money back,” Burns urged.
Citizens attending the hearing weighed in on the matter.
Tom Terrell of Mossy Head was of the opinion that “If there’s fluff in the sheriff’s budget this year” it should be used to pay for the expense instead of rolling the funds forward.
According to Johnson, this was not the case.
“I’m running very lean this year,” he said.
Robert G. Patrick, a Destin CPA working for the WCSO, accounted for an amount of slightly over $30,000 in the sheriff’s budget that Terrell pointed out had not been previously explained. Patrick said the amount was paid to two vendors, in separate payments, to purchase a fingerprint lab and an additional dispatch desk, with the payments being made after Oct. 1.
Bonnie McQuiston bristled that the matter of the $311,431 “has been blown so far out of proportion to look like a circus in the media. In my opinion, this is not the issue to draw a line in the sand over,” she told the commissioners.
“The sheriff did as he was directed and he found the money in the budget you had approved for him,” McQuiston commented, “this is not new money.”
“What is the smartest way to pay the bill?” asked District 1 Commissioner Scott Brannon. He suggested opting to lease the equipment rather than buy it, thus freeing up around $300,000 as the county goes through the 2009 budget process.
Johnson countered that he had signed a contract to buy, and that Motorola was calling him every two weeks to ask for payment, which was due on delivery.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander commented that taxpayers have asked the county not to spend “one more penny than you have to.” She suggested that the sheriff use any current year funds available to pay the bill, even emergency funds, and rely on the BCC to reimburse him should an emergency arise.
However, Johnson said he has only enough funding for general operations.
“Just pay for it, that’s all you gotta do,” Johnson said of the bill.
“We should roll the funds over as we would for any constitutional officer,” agreed District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows, “without putting him through the wringer.”
Meadows added, “I’d like to know how much taxpayer money we’ve spend on this witch hunt.”
She motioned to approve a resolution to roll the $311,431 forward—and to get an accounting of how much the BCC had spent on attorney fees and other expenses related to the matter.
That motion was not seconded. However, a second motion by Meadows simply to approve the resolution carried by one vote.