LEESBURG — With the ink still drying on the new Lee County budget, an unexpected bill for a camera system at the Lee County Jail has the Lee County Board of Commissions and Sheriff Reggie Rachals squaring off over payment.
At Tuesday’s county commission work session, County Manager Ron Rabun informed commissioners that his office had been presented with invoices totalling $18,340.97 for digital video recording (DVR) equipment as part of an upgrade to the jail’s camera system.
The invoices, one for $16,956 for the “order and installation” of five Honeywell 16 channel, four terabyte DVRs and another for $1,384.91 for labor and materials, both dated July 31, 2014, were received on August 4 and came from a company called ESS.
Rabun informed the commission that the county was never alerted to the potential bill by the sheriff’s office and money for the equipment had not been included in the 2014-15 budget the commission recently adopted.
In that budget, only $2,000 was allocated for capital purchases, meaning the payment of the invoices would already create a budget issue.
Over the past three years, Rabun says, the sheriff’s office has exceeded its budget by more than $200,000 annually and for the past four years combined has exceeded it by more than $800,000.
“This is emblematic of a budget that’s not in control,” said Rabun. “Everything can’t be an accident. It happens so often.”
Rabun said he was concerned that the new invoice is an indicator that the coming year could bring more of the same and he was committed to adhering to the budget that was set by the board.
Rabun also said that he and commission chairman Rick Muggride had met with Rachals about the invoices and informed him that the county did not have the funds to pay them. They suggested that Rachals use money from the sheriff office’s drug seizure account pay for the cameras.
Rabun said he would not pay the invoices unless directed to do so by the commission. He also suggested that the commission draft a letter urging all of the county’s constitutional officers to use the commissioner’s office to make capital purchases.
Rabun said his office has expertise in handling large purchases, and also has measures in place to make those purchases in a timely manner while also using a competitive bid process to make sure the purchases came with certain guarantees.
“We do need to further emphasize and get the word out about purchasing and I need the board’s backing,” said Rabun. “We’d like to extend the policies we use, not just through our departments but the constitutional officers, the courts and the sheriff. We try to show people and offer to assist by helping them.”
The board ultimately did not order Rabun to pay the invoice, but did agree to issuing the letter letting other agencies in the county know that the board of commissioners office would help with procurement issues.
In a phone interview Wednesday Rachals confirmed that the bill had been received and that it was for work done to the camera system. He also confirmed that he had met with Rabun and Muggridge and said he felt the county should pay the bill. He added that he did not intend to pay the invoice from the drug seizure account.
“I was against that,” said Rachals. “I need to use that money for other things. They’re just determined to take my drug forfeiture money.”
Rachals added that even though funds from the drug forfeiture account are typically used for capital expenses, he had earmarked those funds for other things, such as the $15,000 he recently spent for a license plate reader for one of the department’s vehicles.
In the wake of the non-payment of the bill, the sheriff also pulled a number of inmate work crews from a variety of county areas, including those that work with the recreation department and with the maintenance department.
“I pulled them,” said Rachals. “Just to try to prove a point. Me sending that help out was a big help for the county.”
Rachals estimated that if those inmates were paid by the county to perform the work they do throughout the community it would cost close to “half a million dollars.”
Rachals said he intends to meet with Muggridge and Rabun again today to further discuss the matter and that he might reconsider using a portion of the drug forfeiture funds to pay the invoice provided the county would offer a compromise.
“If they were willing to help in some way, form or fashion, even half, we could discuss it,” he said. “I’m pretty much standing firm.”
When contacted Thursday, Muggridge said his position on the matter had not changed since Tuesday’s work session and that it was his intent to try and build a relationship between the board of commissioners and the sheriff, but would not do so at the expense of breaking the budget.
“I have a job to do,” said Muggridge. “That is to oversee the people of Lee County’s property and budget for the operation of the county. I support a hard line in regard to the budget.”
Muggridge also added that while he firmly believes that all the constitutional officers in the county, including the sheriff, had “the best interests of the people at heart,” he felt the sheriff’s decision to pull the work crews was retaliatory and not the best course of action for the community as a whole.
“It is not a reasonable reaction,” Muggridge said. “I am incredibly disappointed by the sheriff’s reaction. When people use their power to curse others’ decisions, it’s wrong.”
Muggridge added that he plans to meet with Rachals today, along with Rabun, to try to resolve the matter.