By overspending for a second straight year, Sheriff Robert Pepersackhas staged a showdown with state and county elected leaders that could cause his agency to be shut down temporarily.
Pepersack, who ran $90,000 over budget last year, could run more than $200,000 in the red before this fiscal year ends June 30. He is demanding that the county make up the shortfall, saying the state constitution requires unconditional financing of the sheriff's operation.
A furious County Executive Robert R. Neall fired back last week by requesting state legislation that limits the sheriff's duties and requires him to perform those duties without exceeding his budget.
Meanwhile, Neall is taking steps to keep the sheriff's office, which provides courtroom security, prisoner transport and serv
ice of legal papers, from running out of money. He has asked for a last-minutetransfer of money that had been set aside for snow removal and othercontingencies to the sheriff's budget.
The County Council would have to approve the transfer and is in no mood to bail the sheriff out.
"My patience is worn this with this situation," said Councilman Carl G. "Dutch" Holland, a Republican from Pasadena. Holland supported Pepersack, also a Republican, when he asked for more money last year.
So did Arnold Republican Diane Evans and Linthicum Democrat George Bachman. This year, they feel differently.
"He's been there over a year, and there are no excuses," said Evans, who led the councilin putting an end to last-minute transfers for other departments.
If the council does not approve the transfer of money, the sheriff'soffice would have to shut down, said county Budget Officer Steve Welkos. "Either we approve the money now, or the sheriff goes out of business in May," he said.
Welkos said that is an unlikely possibility. "As a practical matter, nobody wants the courthouse to go unguarded and the courtrooms to go unmanned."
The sheriff's office got a 15.6 percent increase in funding this year. Still, sheriff's officialssaid the budget did not include money to pay for serving criminal warrants. It also provided for security in only six courtrooms, though deputies are guarding 10.
Overtime accounts for most of the sheriff's deficit, Welkos agreed. But budget analysts question whether the sheriff's office should have volunteered to provide security for the Board of Education, during public demonstrations outside the State House and at the annual Chesapeake Bay bridge walk.
Neall and Pepersack are not the first county executive and sheriff to conflict with one another. Their relationship, as set forth in the state constitution, is complicated and prone to disagreements, state lawmakers agree.
Both are independently elected leaders. Because of that, the sheriff says the executive has no ultimate control over his budget, even though the executive is responsible for all county spending.
Two years ago, former county executive O. James Lighthizer and former sheriff William R. Huggins battled over whether the sheriff has sole authority to transport prisoners. Lighthizer believed he could save money by hiring private security workers.
State lawmakers said they do not like mediating disagreements between the county executive and the sheriff.
"Once again, the legislature becomes the referee," said Del. Michael Busch, an Annapolis Democrat who heads the county's 13-member House contingent.
Busch is scheduled to meet with Neall and Pepersack tomorrow morning in an effort to defuse the situation. If successful, the bill could be withdrawn, he said.
In any event, the bill's chances of passage this session are questionable.
Del. JohnGary, a Millersville Republican, said it may take a constitutional amendment to change the fiscal relationship between the sheriff and the county. Other counties may object to tinkering with the constitution as it applies to sheriffs, he said.
Also, the legislation was submitted past the Feb. 21 deadline for new bills. It escaped the HouseRules Committee Friday and was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, but it must reach the Senate by Tuesday. Otherwise, the Senate would have to suspend its rules to consider the bill.
"It could very well be that this is a shot across the bow, that the county executive is sending a message to the sheriff about what he can and can't do," Gary said.
However, if the sheriff can muster the sympathy of lawmakers, Gary said, the bill could backfire on Neall. If legislators find Pepersack's deputies need that much overtime, they could authorize the sheriff to hire more men and force the county to pick up thetab, he said.
"The sheriff hasn't thought to ask us for more deputies, but he could very well go around the county executive entirely," Gary said. "That would drive Neall crazy."