Sheriff’s Office overruns budget

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WALLA WALLA — After a discussion Monday, Walla Walla County commissioners agreed on a fix for overruns in the county Sheriff’s Office 2011 budget.

The commissioners’ action followed a report by county Auditor Karen Martin related to preparations of the county’s annual report on its 2011 budget to the state Auditor’s Office.

Martin said that while her office has been able to reconcile bills paid this year that should have been paid in 2011, “the only problem we came up with was in the Sheriff’s Office” budget.

At the end of 2011, there was $449 left in Sheriff John Turner’s budget, but afterward it was found there were $19,239.34 in unpaid bills, Martin said. Most of those were medical expenses related to County Jail inmates, although one bill was for cleaning supplies.

Martin said this was the first time in the 14 years she’s been auditor that overpsending in an elected official’s budget had come up.

“It’s the first time and it’s disturbing,” she told commissioners Perry Dozier, Gregg Loney and Greg Tompkins.

Shanda Zessin, commanding officer of the Sheriff’s Office administrative services division, told commissioners payment of the medical bills had been held back because of the possibility of payment coming from other entities.

“I didn’t pay them because we were still waiting to see if another entity was going to pick up on it,” she said. She said the Sheriff’s Office had been working with Providence St. Mary Medical Center and Jesse Nolte, deputy prosecuting attorney, to see if payment would come from other sources.

“We thought there was a good chance we wouldn’t be paying the bills at all,” Zessin said.

Turner was not at the meeting.

Commissioners said they were dismayed money was not held in reserve to cover the expenses in case the hope of payment from other sources was unfounded.

“I still struggle with you not keeping this money in reserve,” Tompkins told Zessin.

Loney also said the failure to hold money back was contrary to standard business practices to keep a fund balance based on potential cost.

Zessin suggested the bills could be paid from reserves held over in the Law and Justice Fund, a voter-approved sales tax distributed among local law enforcement agencies, the county Clerk’s Office, Superior Court and the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Commissioners also noted that, according to state law, Turner could be held personally responsible for the overexpenditures. Another option, Loney noted, would be to reduce the Sheriff’s Office’s 2012 budget by the amount needed to meet the 2011 bills.

Commissioners agreed with Martin that the “cleanest” way to resolve the issue would be to redirect the expenditures to the Law and Justice Fund. They asked Zessin to work with Martin to see that this is done.

“It’s not good. It’s not proper, but it is a way to do it,” Tompkins said afterward.

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