Concerns raised from past sheriff actions

Smith, Davis cooperating in transition

By ED HOWELL
Posted 1/19/19

Sheriff Nick Smith is looking at a number of situations in his first days in office, with he and District 1 Walker County Commissioner Keith Davis pledging cooperation as they point out a number of …

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Concerns raised from past sheriff actions

Smith, Davis cooperating in transition

Posted

Sheriff Nick Smith is looking at a number of situations in his first days in office, with he and District 1 Walker County Commissioner Keith Davis pledging cooperation as they point out a number of concerns, ranging from the purchase of vehicles to lack of communication on discretionary spending. 

The two men spoke after Smith had a sweep of the Walker County Jail on Wednesday. 

Davis said Smith, who took office on Monday, will look into the two lawsuits that former Sheriff Jim Underwood filed against the commission concerning what he charged as a lack of funding for his departments and concerning the commission's desire he take responsibility to administer meals for the inmates. 

For his part, Underwood said Friday he was traveling and was not in position to comment on the stories in Friday's and today's Daily Mountain Eagle until he is able to read them.  

"Basically, the citizens were sued over a $266,000 budget cut, and yet the previous administration spent $165,573 on vehicles in the past six months, and one of them I would consider a sports car," Davis said.

Underwood was defeated for re-election on July 17, 2018. Davis and Smith clarified the purchases were made since July. 

Davis said the purchases were made through discretionary funds, and the commission was informed about them due to paperwork for vehicle insurance. However, he said the vehicles were "ordered and bought, again, without the commission knowing about it." Commissioners have complained for months privately over the lack of information on most discretionary purchases. 

"We have had trouble getting the accounts, and we have to have those legally as they have to be audited as part of the full county audit," Davis said. "That information has not been turned over to us. We have a few years back, but we don't have the recent audits of that. I think that is something else Nick is going to address, is to have a full audit of all of those accounts shortly." 

"Those discretionary funds are still taxpayers' dollars. That's pistol permit money," Davis said, saying the sheriff has $600,000 a year in discretionary money and the sheriff alone gets to decide how those funds are spent. 

"Are vehicles needed at some point? Yes," Davis said. "But to have the condition that you have this jail in and go out and have a pending lawsuit against the citizens of Walker County and the taxpayers over a 5 percent cut — how much attorney fees have been spent on that? By the time you add the vehicles and attorney fees, it is more than the $266,000 cut. You've got to have priorities, and you can't have your employees in this working condition and not fix it over going and buying a Camry for an investigator that is $34,000. That doesn't make sense to me" as a commissioner when looking at needs and priorities. 

Smith said the $600,000 that flows through in discretionary funds comes through a bail bonds fee account, the DARE program account, a drug forfeiture account, a law enforcement fund that gets monies from the jail commissary and things such as that, a pistol permit account, a process serving fund and the reserve unit fund. 

Smith said, "As of Jan. 9, the sheriff left about $248,000" in discretionary funds for Smith to use. The budget year started on Oct. 1. 

Davis said some of the funds are restricted but the pistol permit fund and the operating fund are more at the sheriff's discretion. Beyond the vehicles, Smith said it will take an audit before it can be determined how much in total was spent in discretionary funds since the runoff. 

He did not know yet how much funds would be in the account at this point based on the seasonal sales trends in pistols, for example. Once bank statements are obtained, Davis said Smith will be better able to budget. 

Davis said he was present not just to show employees but also Smith that "the relationship going forward between the Sheriff's Department, the jail and the county commission will be the right relationship and the right teamwork going forward to handle and solve these problems. There are a lot of problems, but working together with the right leadership — I feel like we have the right leadership in this county." 

Davis, who has been the commissioner most closely involved with preparing the county budgets, said he and Smith would be working over the next week to review Smith's budget and staffing issues so that the new sheriff can be more familiar with what he has to work with. 

"I want all the help and insight I can get, especially when it deals with the budget starting out," Smith said.

Smith said he also wants to work well with other commissioners, including Chairman Jerry Bishop, whom he said has been very helpful in the process. Bishop said Friday, "I want a good working relationship. I intend to work with him and have a good relationship with the sheriff," noting he has a lot of issues to handle.

"Our people are going forward with repairs on the jail," Bishop said, noting a meeting with Smith and jail officials on Tuesday.  "We're committed to repair that jail and we're going to do it." 

Once the budget is understood, Smith wants to find out how many full- and part-time deputies can be obtained while still living within means. 

He said he would have to review the policy for charging visitors to see inmates via a video screen, as well as for the sale of e-cigarettes to inmates, adding one problem is that not enough policies and procedures for the office in general are in place. 

"I met with the employees on day one and there is not a policy manual," he said. 

While he said many employees were worried about their jobs or where they would be assigned when he arrived, but his overall message is that they will be used where they are needed. 

"I am really not concerned about individual 'what is best for me,' and I that mentality is what has driven a wedge between a lot of departments and a lot of issues," he said. "I just told them I would evaluate for the next 120 days and see what everybody is about." He said he wants for he and the employees to have time to get to know each other while evaluating the workers.

At the same time, he said he had used Jasper Police Chief J.C. Poe as an example for deputies, as Poe told his department if they would do "all the small things right," he would fight to get them more money. "They did what they asked and he stood up for them," he said. "Everybody has got to come together and quit looking out for what is the best interest for them as an individual and what is best for the county as a whole," he said. 

A civil service test for chief deputy will be given on Jan. 22, and he will interview the top three names he gets and make a selection. Jail Administrator Richard Calloway is still in position; asked if he would continue on the job, Smith said, "This is something I am looking at." Antony Leach is acting as the acting chief deputy for the moment. 

Asked what was the biggest thing he has learned in his first three days on the job, Smith said, "It is a lot larger operation than I think a lot of people think it is. There are a lot of moving parts at the Sheriff's Department, and every department is its own animal. It is its own unique thing. These last few days, I haven't even eaten lunch at all. I've been stuck in here (in his office). I got out of the office one time, and that was to go to the Probate Judge's Office." 

Davis said Smith called him at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday from Nauvoo, as he was in the process of pulling a driver off the road. "I think the citizens have a working sheriff, hands down," he said. Smith said once a routine is settled, after working in the office in the mornings, later in the day he would like to work an hour or two a day on the road in various communities. 

Asked about the lawsuit over the jail food, Davis said the commission "doesn't want to overload Nick." The issue will take a little extra time to sort out. He said the county's drug problem is the first priority, followed by getting the jail "back in the shape it needs to be." However, he said once Smith takes over administrating the inmate food will provide additional funding for his budget. 

Davis said Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry took over the food program in that county and is saving a large amount of money. He said Smith has already met with Gentry. 

He said Gentry also has trustees picking up litter on roadsides. He said the late John Mark Tirey, as sheriff, had such a program but it was stopped under "the previous administration."  

The officials said Smith is doing an inventory of his office's vehicles, although it has been put on hold due to work at the jail. He said officials will determine where the vehicles are "or even if they still exist." That study will also include deciding what to do with the new vehicles from the past six months.

Davis said he also understands that five new Tahoe vehicles in the department have been wrecked. Smith said one of the vehicles the commission purchased in 2015 already has 188,000 miles on it, and maybe eight have well over 100,000 miles. Davis said the commission provided 12 Tahoes and a van in the past three years. 

He said the priority should be to provide each regular deputy a reliable vehicle to patrol and attack the drug problem, and then investigators would be the next priority. "It seems to have been the opposite," Davis said. 

Poe said his department puts priority on marked patrol units as they are more driven than investigator vehicles. 

Smith said some of the wrecks might have come from deer or other explainable reasons proving it is not the deputies' fault, but commissioners don't know that. "We need to have an open line of communication so they know why these cars are wrecked and why they were wrecked. They need to know we are taking care of the stuff they bought us," he said. 

He said many of the cars bought recently with discretionary funds have been in the shop. One deputy told Smith that day he needs motor mounts on one of the Dodge Chargers. 

"There have been other vehicles bought besides just these in the past since July," Davis said, saying four new pickups were purchased for top sheriff officials.