County Commissioner meeting gets heated

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By Daniel Lapham,

Canadian County budget talks turned heated Monday afternoon when District 2 Commissioner David Anderson questioned how much is being spent to operate the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Randall Edwards took exception to the argument made by Anderson.

The verbal scuffle between the sheriff and the commissioner came after an across-the-board 3 percent pay hike for all county employees was approved.

Commissioners met with department heads to discuss adjustments to the 2015 fiscal year budget. The adjustments also resulted in a $1,200 raise for the fair board secretary as well as a payment to the Central Oklahoma Water Resources Authority, known as COWRA.

County Clerk Shelley Dickerson presented the adjustments, that moved the budget from the red into the black.

“If you remember last month we were down $599,000 in our general fund and now we are up $214,482,” Dickerson said. “I want to show you what changed to make the difference. As you know, there are two ways to adjust a budget, revenue and expenditures. There was a $149,000 gain in revenue and the rest was achieved through adjustments in expenditures.”

Dickerson presented the pay-hike proposal to the commissioners. She said the hike would be for the 334 county employees, and would cost $256,383. In addition to the raise, Dickerson said a $24,000 fee paid to COWRA was included.

Dickerson said the adjustments would leave the general budget in the red by just over $67,000.

Discussion then focused on how to trim the $67,000 so the budget could move back into the black. That’s when talks turned heated.

Anderson presented numbers that he said show the county is spending too much to operate its sheriff’s office.

“I have been doing a lot of research lately into county governments across Oklahoma,” Anderson said. “I have been studying this abstract of county data published by Oklahoma State University.”

The abstract details statistics related to county government spending, size and demographics. Anderson cited out four counties he said are “statistically” similar to Canadian County.

“I prepared these pie charts showing the percentage of general fund dollars that go to support the sheriff’s departments in Comanche, Rogers, Payne and Creek counties,” Anderson said. “To be fair, the other counties’ sheriff’s departments receive only a portion of their funding from the general fund, the rest comes from sales tax.”

Canadian County’s sales tax, collected at one-third of a cent, is dedicated to the Gary Miller Children’s Justice Center. Anderson said other counties have a similar sales tax percentage, but those choose to use it for the operation of the sheriff’s office.

As Anderson began to lay out his statistics, Edwards began to become noticeably agitated.

“We are one of the fastest growing counties in the country and we have two of the safest cities in the state,” Edwards said. “We do what we need to, to protect the citizens of Canadian County and keep a higher quality of life here in our county. We are responsible for keeping that trash out of our county.”

After a pause, Anderson continued.

“We in Canadian County dedicate more to the sheriff’s department than any of the other counties,” he said. “We spend 40 percent of our general fund to fund the sheriff’s department. We cannot continue to dedicate so much of the general fund without sacrifice.”

Anderson said Edwards is asking for $144,000 to cover out-of-county inmate costs that are not reimbursed by the state because they are in and out of county custody within 72 hours. In addition, Edwards requested an additional $110,000 to cover increased fuel costs, Anderson said.

“We cannot afford to pay both,” Anderson said. “I want you to choose one. I would like to see you present us with a budget with $100,000 less coming out of our general fund.”

Edwards was not impressed.

“Just go ahead and take it,” Edwards said, his voice raising with emotion.

The sheriff continued to rebut Anderson, saying the funds they receive from the county are still not enough to cover expenses.

“We use our cash funds to cover our operational expenses. I am pretty sure this is even illegal but you leave us with no choice,” Edwards said.

District 3 Commissioner Jack Stewart asked the sheriff for clarification on what he meant.

“So what you are saying is you spend more than you get from us?” Stewart asked. “What is the compromise?”

County Assessor Matt Wehmuller agreed to absorb some of the cuts by reducing his budget to an increase of 4 percent with the understanding the sheriff’s office would also lower its increase to 4 percent.

Stewart made a motion to decrease both the sheriff’s request to a 4 percent increase in addition to the $144,000 requested to fund out- of-county prisoner costs.

The motion was approved in a 3-0 vote.

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