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Alachua County Sheriff-Commission Budget Oversight Dispute Hashed Out In Courtroom

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Once the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office receives its budget appropriations from county commissioners each year, should they be able to control how the sheriff spends that money?

Attorneys for the sheriff and county commissioners on Monday argued that question before Circuit Civil Judge Monica Brasington in a three-hour trial. She’s expected to issue a judgment that will help answer the question sometime later this summer.

The county commissioners’ perspective is they should have oversight of changes to sheriff’s office spending, assistant county attorney Bob Swain argued, and that Sheriff Sadie Darnell sometimes does not use taxpayer money for what it was first intended during the budget process. Their position has not changed since 2016 when commissioners first proposed the lawsuit after learning Darnell spent money the previous year on deputy pay raises instead of replacement vehicles.

Swain said when a constitutional officer like the sheriff wants to transfer more than $50,000 from one part of the budget to another, county policy requires commissioners to sign off on it. That’s a policy that first showed up in the county’s summer 2016 budget planning.

The sheriff’s attorney and accountant argued Monday that such a policy exists nowhere in state law, so it doesn’t apply to the sheriff.

Tommy Crosby is Alachua County’s assistant manager in charge of the budget. (Ethan Magoc/WUFT News)

Cynthia Weygant, the office’s attorney, questioned Tommy Crosby, an assistant county manager in charge of the budget, about where that policy came from; he said it stemmed from the board’s chagrin at Darnell spending money on salary increases instead of cars.

Weygant said it was hypocritical of county commissioners to raise questions about transparency in the sheriff’s spending when the county commission’s consent agendas frequently include approval of transfers in excess of $50,000 within its departments. Items on the consent agenda generally aren’t publicly debated like other commission business. And yet, Weygant said, commissioners seek further public debate over the sheriff’s unanticipated expenses.

The sheriff’s chief financial officer Patricia Justice explained the occasional need to transfer funds between the office’s four funds — jail, law enforcement, court security, and the combined communications center.

“It’s no different than your budget at home,” she said. “Some things that come up you couldn’t anticipate during the budget request process.”

Patricia Justice is the chief financial officer for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. (Ethan Magoc/WUFT News)

She gave three recent examples of the office’s unexpected spending: Richard Spencer’s October speech at the University of Florida, Hurricane Irma in September, and the summer 2016 purchase of ballistic helmets for all deputies following the Pulse nightclub shooting.

The office’s spending is independently audited each year. Never, Justice said, has the sheriff’s office failed to return to the county leftover funds at the end of a fiscal year.

In her closing, Weygant argued county commissioners hadn’t demonstrated that they or taxpayers have lost anything by not having constant oversight authority of the sheriff. She also said such oversight would undercut the sheriff’s independence.

“How can the sheriff on one hand make purchases of supplies and equipment,” Weygant asked, “yet she has to go before the board to get permission to make the budget transfers to buy that equipment?”

Swain finished by suggesting Darnell holds an exceptional view of her office.

“The sheriff doesn’t consider herself part of the county once she gets her money,” he said.

Brasington asked each side to file proposed judgments within two weeks. Her decision will follow.

About Ethan Magoc

Ethan is a journalist at WUFT News. He's a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing emagoc@wuft.org or calling 352-294-1525.

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