News

Clash over county's uncashed checks

More than $220,000 in state and federal grant and reimbursement funds cashed in several years late had Island County’s prosecutor and sheriff arguing publicly Monday.

Speaking up in a public hearing just before the Board of Island County Commissioners approved their 2003 budget in Coupeville, Prosecutor Greg Banks alleged the sheriff’s office lost $9,000 in expired checks and was up to five years late in collecting $113,000 in state boating safety, federal COPS grant and drug enforcement money.

Countering him was Sheriff Mike Hawley, who, while taking responsibility for failing to collect the money on time, said a reduced staff and increasing workload in his office is making it difficult to keep track of the paperwork needed to receive the money.

Bringing up the issue less than a month after winning a contested election and after having a deputy prosecutor cut from his office, Banks criticized the sheriff for failing to collect money it should have pocketed during past budget cycles.

“This is simply a matter of government being accountable to the taxpayers,” Banks said,

The money being argued over applies to three previous budget years, 1997, 1998 and 1999. In 1997 and 1998, the sheriff’s office was awarded $150,000 in federal COPS grants to pay for two deputy positions. In those same years, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission authorized two $35,000 grants for a boating safety program run through the sheriff’s office. Other uncollected monies included $15,840 in hiring grants from the Department of Justice, and a 1998 DOJ block grant for computer equipment totaling $11,142.

Both amounts went partly or wholly uncollected for several years; the $70,000 from the state arrived only this October.

All this money, plus a few thousand dollars in overdue drug enforcement funds, is in the county’s hands now, said Hawley Tuesday, a fact confirmed by county budget director Elaine Marlow. But that fact did not hold sway over Banks, who said at least $9,000 in expected revenues are lost for good because several checks were not cashed on time.

While the amount of money lost is small in comparison with the approximately $6 million budget the sheriff’s office has for 2003, Monday’s argument between Banks and Hawley was big. Caught by surprise by Banks’ assertions Monday, Hawley criticized the prosecutor for making a public issue of the uncashed checks without warning him first.

“I don’t appreciate being cut off at the knees,” Hawley said.

Short staffing is the cause

Keeping track of paperwork, reports and receipts has been a problem for the sheriff’s office in recent years. The state auditor’s office mentioned the tardy collections in several audits, including one issued this week. Though bills did not go unpaid because of the late collections — COPS-funded deputies were paid out of reserve money until the federal reimbursement arrived — Hawley said his office’s collections problem is indicative of short staff and too much paperwork. The office has not had an accountant for years and the clerical staff is one person smaller than it was 12 years ago.

He said budget shortages and the needs of the county’s citizens forced him to put more officers on the street rather than hiring people to deal with paper work.

“If there’s been a lapse in trying to collect money, so be it,” Hawley said. “I regret not being able to plug every stinking hole that comes in this dike.”

Banks: Budget made him do it

The relationship between Greg Banks and local law enforcement has been strained over the last few months, especially during the election when Hawley publicly supported Banks’ opponent, Rep. Kelly Barlean.

However, in making a public disclosure of finances in the sheriff’s office, Banks said he bears no ill will toward Hawley, his administrative staff or deputies in the field.

But the issue had to be addressed. Banks said the uncashed checks illustrate a growing need for accountability by public officials during a time of shrinking government revenues and staff lay-offs. About a dozen Island County staff positions were cut to balance the 2003 budget.

“I believe this board must publicly address the financial affairs of the county, even if they are embarrassing, when making these important budget decisions,” Banks said. “This board needs to hold every department and every elected official accountable to you, and more importantly, to the public.”

Banks said he first brought up the issue of uncashed checks in June, but said no action was taken. That is not entirely true, said James Horan, a boating law administrator for the state. He said the $70,000 state parks granted the Island County Sheriff’s Office should have arrived last year. However, a poorly written disbursement request from his office to the state treasurer’s office delayed action. Horan said he didn’t know the money hadn’t been sent until he received an e-mail from the sheriff’s office inquiring after it.

Horan said glitches in payouts for similar programs in 35 other counties and 15 cities are common. He said about half a dozen collect late due to paperwork problems, though typically not as late as Island County.

Banks brought the matter to the attention of the Whidbey News-Times and The South Whidbey Record this past fall, but he said that was an action of last resort.

“I don’t think we should have to rely on the nose of an investigative reporter to make sure we aren’t losing money, or misspending it,” Banks said.

Other documents obtained by the News-Times apparently indicate further problems with uncollected revenues in the sheriff’s office. Several checks issued under Washington State Patrol’s Marijuana Eradication Program, which reimbursed local law enforcement for hours spent on drug busts, went uncashed for years. Some of the checks, including allotments of several thousand dollar, had to be reissued after being canceled under a statute of limitations.

Hawley said Tuesday that his office will try to do a better job keeping track of funds to be collected, but noted that as more his staff and the staffs of other county departments are cut, something will always “slip through the cracks.”

South Whidbey Record editor Matt Johnson contributed to this story.

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