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Letter: Save money on legal fees to afford deputies

To the editor:

It is safe to say public safety is the top priority for Newton County citizens.

Everyone needs to feel safe in their homes, at their jobs and on the roads. That costs money and Sheriff Ezell Brown is a passionate spokesman for better salaries, more positions and additional equipment needed to keep the public and his deputies safe.

His department is allocated approximately 40 to 50 percent of the annual budget for Newton County, and the Board of Commissioners has little say in how he spends his budget. Also, the sheriff frequently makes midyear requests for additional funds, and he usually gets what he wants.

For example, just this month, the BOC granted his request for $248,724 to hire nine new bailiffs to staff the expansion of the Judicial Center when it comes online next May. That request came from our judges and should be respected. It should also be noted this amount will come from the sheriff’s current budget because of vacancies he’s been unable to fill. However, in fiscal 2019, the amount needed to fund those new bailiffs will total $497,468!

BOC decisions made midyear based on unanticipated requests like this one have often come back to haunt that body.

The money for new positions might be easier to swallow if the sheriff had an answer for the exorbitant legal fees he is paying fired county attorney Tommy Craig, which began soon after the BOC booted him in November 2014.

In fiscal 2015, the Sheriff’s Office paid out only $23,841 for legal services. After he hired Craig late in fiscal 2016, his outlay went to $88,078 and in fiscal 2017, the sum jumped to $280,092.

It gets better – we mean worse.

In the first three months of this fiscal year, Craig was paid $85,449. At that rate, the sheriff will pay him a total of $341,795 in fiscal 2018. That’s right: from less than $25,000 three years ago to almost $350,000 now, based on projections. 

What else could that money is used for if not to keep Craig afloat? Maybe another four or five deputies? Or what if the sheriff just used the county’s legal counsel, Jarrard & Davis, which charges a rate that is $46 per hour less than Craig? That alone would save thousands per year.

Automatic approval of the sheriff’s frequent midyear budget additions by the BOC does little to ensure the department is being managed as efficiently as it should be. Sheriff Brown has never provided a sound rationale for the huge hike in legal fees that he just automatically rolls into his budget. The BOC claims state law prevents them from scrutinizing the sheriff’s budget to ensure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. And, the sheriff aggressively defends his independent spending authority.

Like so many other problems in our county, nothing will change until citizens begin requiring the sheriff and the BOC to be more transparent and accountable for how tax money is spent.

Barbara Morgan