Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter: In the shadows with shady numbers
Posted February 20, 2012 01:55 am
COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – This past Thursday night, February 16, 2012, Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter once again spent his time at the evening's County Commission meeting sitting out of view in the shadows. In over three years as the County's chief law enforcement officer, he has worked to make himself invisible, rarely addressing the County Commission or the people that elected him and never speaking out against the pitiful pay of his patrol officers.
This past Thursday was no different. The Sheriff had his FY 2010-11 year end closeout, $223,588, on the consent agenda. This is money he has not spent and must be returned to the county. The Sheriff's closeout letter was scheduled for the November 17, 2011 meeting. It took three months to make it to the Board's agenda.
As Thursday's meeting got underway, your reporter told the County Commission, "I'm hoping the Sheriff, like Bill Gootee did before him, comes up and explains this budget transfer... If he knows how much overtime he is paying at the beginning of the year... why isn't his overtime in his budget?"
Sheriff Hunter's close out letter stated that compensatory overtime has historically cost in excess of $120,000 a year. Your reporter asked that he explain why it was not in his budget.
A county ordinance requires that recurring expenses over $10,000 can only be paid after a public hearing. The County Commission just ignores its own ordinance.
Your reporter stated that he has never seen this Sheriff ask for money for his patrol deputies or explain his budget transfers.
Your reporter asked the Board to ask for an explanation from the Sheriff before approving the transfer back to the Sheriff of $223,500.
Sheriff Hunter refused to step up and speak for himself
Commissioner Williams was first to run to the Sheriff's defense:
I agree wholeheartedly for any constitutional officer or department head that saves money durin the budget year and ask for it and doin those all the things that we normally have to do anyway durin the budget process... I would hate to see this board penalize people for savin money. If they can use it in yearend close out to do things that we'd normally have to budget to do so for -- I think that is good business.
In Columbia County there is no difference between good business and saving money or jacking up one's budget, and then swapping money between funds like carne hucksters, only to get the money back, or sneak it back when you think no one is paying attention.
Budget slight of hand is nothing new for Sheriff Hunter
On September 17, 2009, 13 days before the end of the yearly county budget cycle, Mark Hunter's Sheriff's Office was running a budget surplus of $494,600.76. Rather than claim a second consecutive 1/2 million surplus, Sheriff Hunter arranged to have the Board approve an inter-fund transfer of $264,000.
This last minute money transfer was designed so that the Sheriff's Office did not have to claim the money as a surplus during its yearend closeout.
The money transfer was presented "on behalf of the Sheriff" by the County Manager, as once again Sheriff Hunter was absent.
On October 30, 2009, Sheriff Hunter claimed a budget surplus for the prior year (2008-09) of $230.600.76. He did not mention the transfer of the surplus $264,000 of 13 days earlier.
Sheriff Hunter did not mention that his deputies needed a raise.
Commissioner DuPree was quick to follow Commissioner Williams:
I know the Sheriff has asked many times about having overtime budgeted and he's also asked every time I see him about tryin to figure out how to get raises for his people. So not at one moment has the Sheriff of Columbia County ever not tried to fight for his people... He has approached this board about that on many occasions."
On November 4, 2010, Sheriff Hunter's yearend report was on the agenda. The Sheriff was again absent. He didn't ask for more money for his deputies.
The minutes of that meeting reflect Commissioner DuPree's comments. They speak for themselves:
As far as the Sheriff’s overtime, the Commissioner suggested the Sheriff fund his overtime from his existing budget, since the last few years that office has returned year-end closeout amounts sufficient to cover the overtime.
Commissioner Bailey was the last Commissioner to take the microphone:
Commissioner DuPree took exactly what I was gonna say that the Sheriff has been with this board multiple -- well I guess -- two of the three years I know for certain askin for overtime to be placed in his budget. And we have not put it in his budget -- we would prefer to see it this way... He's goin in the direction that the board asked him to do it. Am I not correct?
In unison the Board spoke up, "That's absolutely correct."
Commissioner Bailey concluded the conversation, "I can't say there is no transparency."
Everyone of Sheriff Hunter's budgets has a line for overtime. For the past three years his own written words claim that "overtime has historically cost in excess of $120,000 a year." A look at his budgets shows this is untrue.
In the year ending 2010, not counting grant eligible overtime, the Sheriff spent $50,979 in overtime, a far cry from $120,000.
In the previous two years there is a big zero in the overtime line.
Former Sheriff Bill Gootee had "$0" in his overtime lines.
On Friday night your reporter spoke with Sheriff Gootee.
The Observer asked Sheriff Gootee why there was no money for overtime in his budgets.
Sheriff Gootee said the County didn't want to pay overtime. "When deputies worked overtime, we gave them time off."