The Duncan Banner

August 29, 2013

Sheriff, county officials square off on budget

Heated meeting results in possible compromise

Mike Smith
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — Sheriff Wayne McKinney and other Stephens County officials squared off in a tense meeting Wednesday, with a lawyer essentially threatening to sue if the others didn’t work with McKinney on his budget requests.

Doug Friesen, an Oklahoma City attorney hired by McKinney’s office, said he was prepared to file court actions alleging violations of county budget-making laws if officials flatly denied the sheriff’s request for additional money from the county general fund.

“We do not want to do this,” Friesen told members of the Board of Stephens County Commissioners and the County Excise-Equalization Board. “It is not the route we want to go.”

He said by law, the prepared budget being discussed should have been filed last week and there should have been a previous meeting with the sheriff about his requests. If officials decided to reject funding requests, they were required to review them line-by-line and justify their decisions, he said.

He said it also was unlawful to ask the sheriff to use money from cash accounts to pay for general expenses of his office.

It did not come to legal action, at least for now.

After some terse exchanges between McKinney, the lawyer and some members of the boards, a tentative plan emerged that would give the sheriff’s office about $731,000 in general fund money for the 2013-14 budget.

McKinney seemed appeased and said it would be enough to pay for three new deputies to provide enhanced security at the Stephens County Courthouse. He said that was a necessity and he would work with others in finding ways to pay for more security equipment.

The proposed, overall county budget would spend about $8.3 million and include pay raises ranging from 5 percent to 10 percent for deputy employees of all county offices, except the sheriff’s department. It would be the second consecutive year some raises were given.

Last year’s budget, which expired on June 30, spent about $7.76 million.

Unlike last year, when the commissioners recommended a budget and the Excise Board approved it on the same day, the current proposal is not a done deal.

County commissioners must still vote to recommend the budget, which could be done at their next meeting, and the Excise Board — which has final say — must approve the budget.

And that might not be a forgone conclusion.

Although there seemed to be a loose consensus Wednesday for moving forward with the tentative plan, Excise Board member Todd Churchman suggested during the meeting the boards get their own attorney.

At one point, he looked at Driesen and asked who hired him. Driesen did not answer.

“You’re not here on your own accord,” Churchman said. “Somebody had to pay for you.”

The two boards decided last year to not only deny McKinney’s request for $784,000, but cut his budget from the previous year by about $205,000. His office was the only one cut, but he received supplemental money that brought his general fund total to about $611,000.

McKinney said he heard speculation that some members of the boards would not cooperate with his request this year, so his office hired Friesen and brought him to Wednesday’s meeting.

Churchman, a commissioner last year, feuded with McKinney over budget matters, saying he had grown his office significantly and had about $2 million in cash funds he could tap to grow it.

The sheriff has two primary cash accounts that take in money generated by his office, in part through serving warrants and housing inmates at the county jail.

The county, Churchman said then, simply could not afford to have one office “grow as big and flashy as they want.” The cut in the sheriff’s budget was a prudent fiscal decision and had nothing to do with politics, he said.

Churchman, a Democrat, was defeated in his re-election bid in November 2012 by Republican Lonnie Estes, whom McKinney backed. McKinney, a Republican, easily won re-election to a second term last year.

In January — about a week after an Excise member resigned — county commissioners appointed Churchman replace him. Commissioners Dee Bowen and Darrell Sparks, Democrats, voted for in favor.

Churchman said repeatedly Wednesday that the county must remain fiscally sound, which includes money in its emergency reserve account. There was about $4 million in that account as of June 30.

He said if the county approved the sheriff’s full budget request and kept funding those costs each year, the reserves could be wiped out in half-a-dozen years.

The county already had to dip into reserves to pay for a new air-conditioning system for the courthouse building this past year. Churchman said the building will also need a new boiler costing about $100,000 in the next year or so, plus other maintenance needs sure to arise.

“Next year are you going to wring us for more?” Churchman asked McKinney.

It appeared early in the meeting that officials might settle on giving McKinney the same $611,000 he ultimately got in the previous budget year.

The sheriff said that was unacceptable.

He said this year’s request of about $889,000 was essential to pay existing personnel, adequately patrol the rural areas of the county and pay for three deputies to provide courthouse security.

McKinney and Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks told commissioners on Monday that enhanced security was long overdue.

It was now essential, they said, in light of the fatal drive-by shooting in Duncan on Aug. 16 that killed an Australian man and landed three Duncan teenagers in jail, two of them charged with murder.

Hicks said his own employees had received telephone calls that concerned them, and one was so nervous that she spent a day holding onto an emergency alarm device. McKinney said Wednesday that judges have also been complaining about the lack of security.

Although board members agreed that enhanced security was needed, some questioned how much they could afford.

At one point, County Clerk Cindy Kaiser asked if she could say something.

“I’ve got girls in my office that are terrified,” she said.

McKinney said his request was a minimum amount needed to pay for essential services, including courthouse security and ability to respond timely to emergencies.

He said he already augments his budget with money from the cash accounts and yet many of his deputies are owed a lot of comp time for working extra hours.

“That does tell you we don’t have enough money to cover the county and make it safe,” he said.