Sheriff's overtime costs criticized

October 09, 1994|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

Joseph P. Meadows, the Republican challenger for sheriff, took aim last week at Democratic incumbent Robert E. Comes, charging that the sheriff's office has spent nearly half of its budgeted overtime money in the first three months of fiscal year 1995.

According to figures confirmed by the county treasurer, the sheriff's office is on a pace to overrun its overtime allocations by more than $600,000 in the fiscal year.

The figures show that the sheriff's office spent $389,825 for overtime in the first three months of fiscal year 1995, which began July 1.

That amount was paid from the yearly overtime budget of $958,493 allocated for administrative, patrol, corrections, investigative and court services.

The sheriff's office will be reimbursed by the Board of Education for overtime involving high school football game security, by the Big M drive-in restaurant for car show security and by a foot-patrol grant, Sheriff Comes said.

Some items, such as overtime for security details at the annual county Farm Fair, will not be reimbursed.

"That's a county function, so it's not charged back," the sheriff said.

Mr. Meadows had discovered the overtime figures for administrative, patrol, investigative and court services on his own. James M. Jewell, the county treasurer, confirmed them and supplied overtime figures for corrections to complete the sheriff's office overtime budget picture.

All told, "The sheriff's office is on a pace to spend $1,559,300 in overtime," Mr. Jewell said.

Sheriff Comes said the reason for the overtime expenditures is, "We are short too many deputies."

"But," he said, "we've got 12 [people] in our training academy now who will graduate in January and resolve that problem.

"I've been in the sheriff's department for over 30 years, and it never has run over budget," he said.

The sheriff said he didn't make lateral hires and bring in experienced police officers who need only minimal training and can go on patrol quickly because "there were too many openings fill."

Those openings could have been filled sooner if the sheriff had taken a "hands-on approach" to management, Mr. Meadows charged. "The sheriff does not know what is happening within his own department."

Mr. Meadows, a prosecutor in the Harford state's attorney's office, had sought to debate Sheriff Comes on unspecified issues, but the sheriff recently rejected the challenge.

The sheriff has maintained a low-key re-election campaign, insisting that his record speaks for him.

"I'm a doer, not a talker," Sheriff Comes said.

Mr. Meadows, the first Republican candidate to run for sheriff in 40 years, contended that the sheriff doesn't want to face tough questions voters may have about his management.

The sheriff dismissed that suggestion and responded to other allegations.

Mr. Meadows continued with his complaints. "Early this year, a backlog of 800 warrants had not been entered into the agency's computer," Mr. Meadows said. "That meant dispatchers did not have up-to-date information, for example, on whether an individual pulled over in a traffic stop was wanted for a crime, and how serious the crime was."

That kind of management threatened the safety of patrol deputies, Mr. Meadows said.

"A deputy needs to know if a suspect is known to carry a weapon," he said. "If warrants are not current, dispatchers cannot warn him and his life could be in jeopardy."

Sheriff Comes said he was well aware of the situation, but that the transfer of police dispatchers to the Emergency Operations Center meant a loss of manpower.

"Our communications officers would help enter the warrants -- it takes about 45 minutes to do each one -- during slow hours at night, but they couldn't do that any longer [after the transfers], and we had to find other ways to catch up."

The backlog is nearly wiped out now, Mr. Meadows and Sheriff Comes agreed.

Mr. Meadows also cited a $16,000 sum the sheriff's office failed to spend on overtime for foot patrols from a state fiscal 1994 grant.

If the money is not used for the specific purpose and within the specific time, it is lost, Mr. Meadows said.

That amount was closer to "a few thousand dollars," the sheriff said.

Mr. Jewell, the treasurer, said the unspent amount from the foot-patrol grant was $15,590.

"If you don't have the people to work the overtime, you can't use it," the sheriff said.

Mr. Meadows said the sheriff may have too many specialty programs with too many deputies involved in "public relations" programs.

The sheriff's office needs those programs, but it also needs deputies on the road solving crimes and arresting criminals, Mr. Meadows said.

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