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'There was absolutely no clerical error'

By TRAVIS WEIK - tweik@thecouriertimes.com

What’s black and white and red all over? The 2018 budget for the Henry County government.

This is the same budget that dominated much of last week’s meeting of the Henry County Council.

During the public meeting, councilman Clay Morgan asked several questions of his fellow council members and of the Henry County Auditor’s office about money he believed was removed from the budget without the council’s knowledge.

Morgan said “a pretty big mistake” had been made. Council president Nate LaMar suggested that the confusion could be the result of a clerical error.

“I want the taxpayers to know there was absolutely no clerical error, and the approved budget was not changed,” Henry County Auditor Pat French said Tuesday.

The discussion and confusion has been centered around a request that Sheriff Ric McCorkle made last year for additional money to his deputies’ uniform fund.

The sheriff was told at the Feb. 28 meeting that he would have to submit an additional appropriation for the money from the Local Income Tax (LIT) fund because it was not included in the approved budget.

Morgan and several other council members said they remembered approving that money for the deputies. Morgan argued that the sheriff should not have to jump through more hoops to get money that was already set aside for him.

French said she didn’t know until last week’s council meeting that Morgan had questions about the uniform funds.

“He never asked me,” French said, “He never asked Cheryl (Chief Deputy Auditor Cheryl Scales).”

Looking at the numbers

A review of the budget documents on file in the auditor’s office found that the Henry County Council did not give the sheriff’s department the full amount that McCorkle requested last summer.

According to McCorkle’s request, the sheriff asked for $16,800 in uniforms from the Sheriff Budget and $25,000 in uniforms from the Jail Budget, for a total of $41,800, out of the county’s 2018 general fund.

During a budget review process last fall, French told the council that they needed to cut about $700,000 from the 2018 budget.

Chief Deputy Auditor Cheryl Scales said the auditor’s office provided council members with reports and print outs of the various funds during the entire workshop process.

A second column of figures on the budget documents – in red ink – show the amounts that the Henry County Council approved for each fund.

The uniform funds from each of McCorkle’s budgets had been replaced with zeros.

The county council and the auditors office agree that the council members decided to pay for the uniforms out of the public safety LIT fund, rather than using general fund money.

The 2018 Line-Item Budget for the LIT Fund shows $30,000 set aside for uniforms.

That is $11,800 less than McCorkle initially requested.

According to the county records, council member Richard Bouslog made the motion to accept the final budget. Morgan seconded that motion.

“They did not appropriate that extra money,” Scales said.

The sheriff said he immediately noticed the money wasn’t there when the budget came back.

Scales thinks the final amount was lower than the sheriff requested because the council could not make the LIT bottom line go over $864,617, the amount that had been publicly advertised.

Scales explained that because the council did not set the $11,800 aside in the budget, McCorkle would need to ask the council for more money.

“There’s plenty of cash there to do an additional appropriation,” Scales said.

“My understanding is I’m going to have to submit a letter to get that money (from the LIT fund),” McCorkle said.

The sheriff submitted and received several similar requests from the public safety fund in 2017.

Scales said McCorkle also has some latitude to request other funds already in his budget without asking for council approval.

The uniforms are listed in a specific expense category. Scales said the sheriff can request that money be moved around within that specific category to cover any expected shortfall.

McCorkle would not need council approval to make that transfer, but he would still need to submit a letter to the auditor’s office so there was a proper paper trail, Scales said.

Sheriff’s budget

McCorkle also requested $104,000 from the general fund in his June 2017 request for new vehicles. The council zeroed that number out, as well, and budgeted the money out of the LIT fund.

The final approved LIT budget shows $135,000 earmarked for sheriff’s vehicles.

McCorkle told the council at the Feb. 28 meeting that he was missing $15,000 out of his car fund.

The sheriff told the council that he had expected $150,000 to buy five new cars and necessary equipment.

Council members Robin Fleming and Steve Dugger told McCorkle that they had approved his department to buy four vehicles this year, not five.

“It was four cars,” Dugger said. “The budget is set (to) four cars from now on. Every year... the sheriff’s department gets four new cars. It’s a done deal.”

According to claims filed with the auditor’s office, the sheriff’s department purchased three new vehicles Jan. 25 and two additional vehicles Feb. 9.

The county paid $123,497 for the five new vehicles.

Scales said this leaves the sheriff with about $11,500 to spend on accessories and markings for the cars and SUVs, unless he requests more money from the council in the form of additional appropriations.

McCorkle said Tuesday he had confused two different budget line-items and there was no problem with vehicle funds.

“The vehicle money is there,” McCorkle said. “It was right.”

The Henry County Council also moved money around within the LIT budget to cover a $25,000 shortfall to the sheriff’s retirement fund.

The sheriff’s department originally asked the county council for $274,617 to cover retirement costs this year.

On Jan. 18, the sheriff filed a claim of $299,617 to pay for those costs.

That amount was allocated within the LIT fund budget that the county council approved.

Confusion leads to accusations

Morgan was frustrated during last week’s meeting to the point that he publicly apologized for the council not fully understanding what was going on with their budget.

The councilman suggested that somewhere along the approval process, someone outside of the council changed the budget and took money away from the sheriff’s uniform fund.

“No one took any money out anywhere,” Scales said Tuesday. “Nobody in this office would ever change a budget that was already passed. Never.”

Scales said the LIT fund is relatively new to the county and local leaders are still figuring out the best way to dispense money out of it.

She suggested the council might consider not budgeting anything from LIT in future years and instead require all requests to go through the additional appropriation process.

Scales also wishes that the county government would record all of their meetings, whether on camera or with an audio recorder, to avoid this type of confusion in the future.

French said she has been asking the county commissioners to record all government meetings, especially those concerning the budget, since she took office in 2011.