After taking a look at the seriously messed up budget activities in Pacific County recently, I feel compelled to want to give a hug — or at least a hearty “thank you” — to the budget staffs at our local municipalities and our other forms of local government here on the Harbor, including the county and the port.
Whatever public disagreements there could be had on a variety of issues — marijuana in Hoquiam, oil trains at the Port, access fees at the county — at least our local governments aren’t broke and have quality budget managers actually doing their jobs. For that matter, our budget staffs across this county are also being held accountable by elected officials that seem to be paying attention to the finances. I’ve been to quite a few meetings where a Montesano councilman is questioning the purchase of boots or a county commissioner is wondering about the purchase of software.
In Pacific County, every safeguard possible fell apart and nobody noticed for years.
The Chinook Observer, a weekly newspaper out of Long Beach, reported that “software trouble, recession and miscommunication” led to the discovery just recently that a fund geared for police vehicles and safety equipment had been drained completely. This is the county’s Equiment Rental and Revolving fund, similar to a fund Grays Harbor County also has — and it’s quite healthy here, in fact, with more money being infused this year for potential vehicle replacements than in any recent years.
Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson had been transferring $20,000 per month out of his operating budget into this fund with hope of one day using it to purchase new equipment. Johnson was making this transfer instead of using the funds for new personnel because he had an eye toward the future needs of his police force. Meantime, he has devoted almost every day of his job out on patrol because his staff is so lean. Both he and his undersheriff have no choice but to patrol the county like any other patrol deputy. In fact, he maintains two homes in the county because it’s so huge and he never knows if he’ll end up in South Pacific County or on the north end.
Just like the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office, a part of the Pacific County Sheriff’s budget is spent on paying a “rental” fee on the car as well as a per mileage rate — all of which goes to the maintenance of the vehicles and to buy new equipment in the future.
The Chinook Observer says that, on paper, the ER&R Fund showed there was actual money there. But there wasn’t. Someone had butchered the books. And, in fact, there was a $526,000 deficit. Johnson said in just the past few years, there should have been at least $400,000 in transfers that his budget had put in there alone.
In fact, Johnson tells me that his records show there should have actually been $8.3 million saved up in the fund for both new cars and new public works equipment. It was all gone.
“I remember a long time ago, one of the deputies said, ‘Are you sure that this money is real?’ I said, ‘Of course it is!’ Well, it wasn’t,” Johnson told the Chinook Observer.
Johnson says that he has 13 cars that came from between 2007 and 2008 and have loads of miles on them.
“Things like this don’t just ‘happen,’” Johnson wrote in a letter to his employees. “… I am hopeful that some serious forensic accounting takes place and someone will accept responsibility for this fiasco.”
Thus far, The Chinook Observer says, the Pacific County commissioners are not about to lay the blame on anyone at their county — or even any department.
“Nobody to this day has said who didn’t catch this, or who has responsibility. This didn’t just happen on its own,” Johnson said. “We are responsible for the taxpayers’ money. I would be hugely embarrassed if our office was responsible for this.”
Pacific County Commissioner Frank Wolfe told the Chinook Observer that the unexpected half-million dollar hit to the general fund was unfortunate, but not devastating.
“It doesn’t matter who made the mistake,” he said. “The mistake was made. Let’s just fix that. … That’s not the sheriff’s money. That’s everybody’s tax money. We’re gonna try as hard as we can to get him some cars, but frankly, we have some things that are more important.”
So, let this be a hearty valentine to our local budget managers. Thank you for paying attention to where the money goes. I always raised an eye brow when I saw so much attention being paid to a tiny fund that was just a few thousand dollars short and needed a cash infusion because of some extra expenses. I shall never question those legal ads again because supplementing a budget to make sure it’s not in the red makes absolute sense to me. All I have to do is point a finger at Pacific County and see what happens when someone isn’t paying attention.
Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org