Cars, cops and controversy

Authorities, citizens’ group at odds over Sheriff’s department vehicles

From July 19, 2007

One person’s wise stewardship is another person’s waste.

That much is certain when listening to either side in the issue over the number of vehicles owned by the Blount County Sheriff’s Office. For about 18 months, critics have said Sheriff James Berrong has too many vehicles for his department and is spending too much of his budget on cars.

Berrong praises his officers for providing good service and response times. He says his office is a good steward of the taxpayers’ money and that federal prisoner funds, not property taxes, pay for cruisers.

Friendsville resident and head of Citizens for Better Government Jim Folts originally pointed to an increase in the number of cruisers in the Sheriff’s fleet during budget discussions and has kept the questions coming, insisting he could not get a true count of vehicles from the Sheriff.

Sheriff Berrong, Mayor Jerry Cunningham and Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett have provided numbers (249), including vehicles that were donated to the Sheriff’s office and surplus vehicles that are used for parts. Folts says there are still 30 missing, and, that the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office does the same job with only 130 to 133 vehicles.

Folts has taken his allegations to the authorities in Nashville. The state comptrollers office on July 17 told Blount Today that they are conducting an audit of the Sheriff’s department’s vehicles because of complaint letters from Folts and members of his group. As to when the audit will be finished and whether they suspect any wrong-doing, the state comptrollers office would not comment.

So who’s telling the truth, and who’s qualifying the facts to serve their own argument? Blount Today spoke to Berrong, Folts, County Mayor Jerry Cunningham, Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett and the chiefs of police for the cities of Maryville and Alcoa. Blount Today also took a trip to Sullivan County to talk to personnel in their Sheriff’s department.

It’s not a long time ago or a galaxy far, far away, but it is shaping up to be, as Mayor Cunningham tagged it: The Car Wars.

Prison money well-spent?

In the June 21 Blount County Commission meeting, Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett said the sheriff’s office had 249 vehicles. Here was the count:

  • 175 Crown Victorias
  • 6 Ford Tauruses
  • 33 sport utility vehicles
  • 11 pick up trucks
  • 5 vans
  • 6 motorcycles
  • 2 Marauders
  • 3 trailers (one is a mobile command unit, one is a utility trailer and another is a boat trailer)
  • 3 all-terrain vehicles
  • 1 Smart unit that is equipped with a radar gun and a screen
  • 1 boat
  • 1 motor (classified as a vehicle from an asset standpoint)
  • 1 Zumro rescue raft
  • 1 Ford Contour
  • The sheriff said more vehicles became a necessity in the late 1990s. “A lot of this was related to our insurance company who came in and told us we needed to take two-thirds of our vehicles off the road (that) they weren’t road-worthy,” Berrong said. “We knew then we had to come up with a fleet management program.”

    In 2002, three years after the county had built a new Justice Center jail, the sheriff’s office began housing federal prisoners. When the federal inmate program began, Berrong reached an agreement with the county mayor to create a fleet management program. “The first 40 federal inmates’ money is earmarked for fleet management,” he said.

    Folts contends that there isn’t enough money generated from the prisoners to justify having them. Berrong disagrees.

    “We generate money for our vehicles through our federal inmate program,” he said. Berrong buys an average of 25 vehicles annually.

    “If you didn’t buy 25 a year, in four years you have to buy 100,” he said. “Based on needs we have, it just makes good sense to do 25 a year.”

    Facts and figures

    Folts has also expressed concern over the growth in the number of vehicles in the Sheriff’s department. He bases his numbers on the 2002 state audit showing 130 vehicles.

    “As recent as 2002 (the Sheriff) only needed 132 vehicles,” Folts said during a recent commission meeting. “Sullivan County provides CALEA quality service for same size population with 130 vehicles, and we just put $855,000 in sheriff’s budget to buy more vehicles.”

    Berrong said Folts’ figures comparing 2002 and the present aren’t valid. In 2002, Berrong said, the state comptroller’s office came to him and asked him how many “marked patrol vehicles” he had, Berrong said.

    “They said (to count) the ones with ‘Sheriff’ on the sides and blue lights. At that time, it was around 132 vehicles,” he said.

    “This time of year, we have 25 more (cars) than normal because our new fleet comes in,” said Berrong. “In the next couple or three months we’ll auction off 20 to 25 vehicles. You could say our fleet is 225.”

    Folts argues that even if the figures show the sheriff’s office in Blount County has 249 vehicles, only 140 people have a need for a service vehicle, indicating no need to grow from 132 to 249 from 2002 to today, Folts said.

    Berrong countered that he has consistently bought 25 cars year.

    “It is impossible to go from 132 to 249 (from 2002 to 2007) buying 25 cars a year. That’s mathematically impossible,” Berrong said. “And, in that time, we’ve auctioned off over 100 cars. It’s mathematically impossible to grow to the extent they said it has,” he said.

    The sheriff, however, does not deny growth since they started the fleet management program. He estimated there were probably 170-plus total vehicles at the sheriff’s office in 2002. When asked if he thought his office was overstocked with vehicles, the sheriff said, “No, I do not. A lot of those being counted are boats and four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicles.”

    The sheriff said that vehicles such as ATVs, mobile command centers and boats are necessities and must be available for emergencies. “We have incident command or critical incidents, things that are out of the norm.

    “Another reason the fleet has grown is we have 15 vehicles at the training center,” he said. “These are cars that the most you are going to get out of them is scrap. So we utilize them, and, unfortunately, we get penalized.”

    Berrong said another area where he gets criticized is in having wrecked cruisers on hand. “We save tens of thousands of dollars because we leave those on inventory to scavenge parts. Now I’m getting penalized,” he said. “There are so many misconceptions. It’s really not fair.”

    The sheriff said most of what the department buys annually goes into patrol cars. “Once the cars get three years or 100,000 miles, they go to school resource officers or court services or other departments,” he said.

    Berrong said that the vehicles they bought this year may be on patrol, but they could still last six to nine years. “We’ve been good stewards. We give other office holders who need transportation vehicles,” he said. “We hand them to other areas in county government that need them. We’ve been penalized two or three different ways for being good stewards. We don’t think we have too many vehicles.”

    In addition to regular patrol units, the sheriff said there are others who need vehicles, including the senior outreach program, school resource officer program, litter pick up program and chaplain program. The driving range also requires vehicles, as does federal prisoner transport.

    Berrong said he and Assistant Chief Archie Garner gather with supervisors in each division to decide which vehicles to purchase each year. Garner and the supervisors also decide who gets those vehicles and those decisions are based on vehicle condition and mileage. “Patrol gets the bulk of what we order,” Berrong said.

    Trip to Sullivan County

    Folts has held up Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office as a model for Blount County to follow. In his Tale of Two Counties presentation for the public in February, he compared Blount County budgets to those in Washington County, and the Sheriff’s departments of Blount and Sullivan county. Folts said he has spent a lot of time researching county government budgets, and this year spoke more than once on what he said was waste in government, particularly regarding the number of vehicles owned by the sheriff’s office.

    Folts said he spoke with Susan Arnold at the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office in mid-June and obtained figures that could be verified on the Sullivan County Web site (http://www.scsotn.com/fleetmaintenance.html). He removed animal control and 911 vehicles, which he said are not counted in the Blount totals, and said Sullivan County uses 133 vehicles to do the same job that Blount does with 238. “If we believe the latest Blount numbers,” he said.

    When a reporter visited the sheriff’s office in Sullivan County on July 16, technician Chris Davis said there were 213 to 218 vehicles, if trailers for ATVs and boats were counted as individual assets as Blount County does.

    Davis said there were 125 marked units and 50 unmarked cars. He said there also was 1 golf cart, a “mule” all-terrain vehicle, 1 six-wheeler, 5 vehicles for animal control, 3 motorcycles and a trailer, 2 other all terrain vehicles with a trailer and four spares. The remaining vehicles are buses for work crews, vans, a Dodge Caravan for evidence, a command center motor home, a 1994 customized Mitsubishi 3000 Dream Vehicle used to publicize the department’s drug, alcohol and anger management program, a box truck, an Isuzu pick up and several undercover and special operations vehicles.

    One difference is the mileage the Sullivan County cars acquire before they are taken out of commission.

    At the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, technician Chris Davis said their vehicles are often beyond 100,000 miles.

    Davis said vehicles are sold when they wear out and sometimes they get over 300,000 miles on them. “But they’re well maintained,” technician James Burke said.

    “It’s not based on time,” Capt. Keith Elton said. “It’s based on condition.”

    Davis said the Crown Victorias that the deputies use are good cars. “These Crown Vics, we get such good service. We can tell you what is going to happen, basically minor stuff, really,” he said.

    “It has to be something major - 200,000 miles or the motor goes out,” Davis said. “When it gets over 200,000 miles, we pass it on to someone who doesn’t use it as much.”

    Burke said vehicles are passed down until they can’t be used anymore. “I guess you could say we’re recycling them,” he said.

    Folts’ numbers

    Folts said he first became interested in the cars issue in June of 2006 when his group, Citizens for Better Government, asked the sheriff how many cars the department owned.

    “Three things clicked,” Folts said. “Last June the sheriff said he had 97 cars. Then in December, (the state audit said) 263. Then in January, he says he has no more than 180 cars, and then, a number of commissioners asked questions about cars and couldn’t get straight answers.”

    Folts said that in February, he wrote a letter to state comptroller in charge of the auditors and asked for their help, pointing out that we had a discrepancy of 83 vehicles, he said.

    Folts said that if the current list Bennett produced eliminated horse trailers and ATVs, there were really only 238 cars, SUVs, trucks, vans and motorcycles in the department.

    Folts said there was a discrepancy in the county’s figures. “We had 263 vehicles on audit report in June of ‘06,” he said. “The sheriff bought 24 more in January and took delivery at end of March. In addition, he bought three more in May. That gives you a total of 290,” he said.

    Folts said the Purchasing Department sold 16 and transferred three others for a total of 271. “Bennett’s list only has 238. The question is, what happened to other 33 vehicles?” Folts said.

    “There’s a lot they don’t want to come out,” Folts said. “When auditors went looking, there were many (cars) they couldn’t find. They found them in the hands of private owners. I don’t know who, but the auditors went and searched VIN numbers on vehicles to find out who had these vehicles,” he said. “They found, in a number of cases, these vehicles were in private hands.”

    Sherry Kast, the communications officer with the comptroller’s office, told Blount Today that any results from their audit would be released in a report at an unspecified time and that the amount of time to conduct the audits vary. Pushed for confirmation on his information, Folts said, “I’m not going to reveal my sources.”

    Folts said the county and the sheriff’s office is “clamming up” and not talking about the discrepancy. Folts said his source was someone in county government.

    “All of this is highly embarrassing,” he said. “I have heard there are some they flat out couldn’t find. Again I don’t want say how I know that.”

    Folts said there is a lot wrong with the financial controls of the sheriff’s office and the county. “This is a very serious matter when books are off by $2.5 million,” he said. “As I said, the auditors have supposedly gotten to the bottom of it.”

    Kast did confirm an audit is ongoing.

    “Yes,” she said, “We are currently auditing in Blount County. We have received several letters from some citizen’s groups regarding the sheriff’s office, and we’re currently auditing in Blount County,” she said.

    Kast said that while they often come to town several times throughout the year for information, they are auditing based on letters they received. “If there are any findings, those will be made public in a reporting later this year,” she said. “With the audit, any findings, whatever the results, won’t be released until later.”

    ‘Auditors welcome’

    When questioned about alleged discrepancies and state auditors coming to town, Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett said that the state auditors from comptroller John Morgan come to town at least four times a year to do their work.

    “I know the count we have, the inventory we have of vehicles is correct,” Bennett said. “I know that we’ve not disposed of any vehicles improperly.”

    County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said that while the auditor’s report doesn’t become public until the fall, he’s been informed everything was found to be above board.

    “We know the auditor has given us a clean bill of health by word of mouth,” he said. “They’ve told us everything is copasetic.”

    Bennett said Assistant Chief Deputy Archie Garner keeps track of all the vehicles. “Archie can pinpoint every single vehicle. He keeps up with them. Ultimately, as long as someone knows where they all are, that’s ultimately where I’m concerned,” he said. “To make sure we have control of assets, we have somebody on site who does that.”

    Cunningham described the issue of cars in the sheriff’s office as “The Car Wars.”

    “It seems like somehow we’ve lost focus during the budget process on the fact that not one penny of property tax money goes into acquiring any of these vehicles,” Cunningham said of the sheriff’s cruisers. “By agreement between the sheriff and a previous commission, if he would house federal prisoners, he was to receive enough money to purchase and equip a certain number of cars a year.”

    While Folts has said previously that money received from housing federal prisoners doesn’t even pay for cost of the program, Cunningham said that if the sheriff’s office didn’t have contracts to hold federal prisoners, taxpayers would have to pay for the cruisers.

    “What folks don’t seem to understand is this would add 2 to 3 cents a year to the property tax rate to buy and equip vehicles,” Cunningham said. “That’s where we’ve lost sight of the whole issue. Somewhere we got off on what I call ‘the car wars.’ Cars come from housing federal prisoners, not from Blount County property tax rates, and I don’t know how it can be said any more clearly than that.”

    In Sullivan County, Capt. Elton said vehicles were bought fromthe General Fund, which comes from property tax dollars. According to the Sullivan County tax assessors office, the property tax rate in Sullivan County was $2.53 per $100 of assessed value in 2006. Blount County’s property tax rate for 2006 was $2.18, which was increased in June to $2.23.

    Cunningham pointed out that in 2006 Folts’ group predicted that the county would be $5 million over budget. “In fact we came in $2 million under budget. That’s a $7 million discrepancy on their part, and they’re the same folks who purport to count our cars,” he said. “Based on those projections, I don’t think you can put any stock in any their estimates.”

    Cunningham said no vehicles have been inappropriately disposed of or sold improperly. “If a citizen knows about cars wrongly disposed of, they need to go to the TBI or the FBI and not pot-shot with unfounded rumors and innuendo,” he said.

    Berrong said he welcomed the audit that apparently was begun because of letters from Folts and Citizens for Better Government.

    “We have internal audits,” he said. “To us, it’s routine, but now it will done more in depth, and that’s all right.”

    The sheriff said Blount County and every other local agency in the state undergoes audits. “This is just an enhancement based on these false implications. We’ll just welcome them,” Berrong said of the auditors.

    The sheriff’s ride

    Other criticisms have included one of the vehicles Berrong himself drives, a 2002 Mercury Marauder. Berrong said he bought the Mercury Marauder in 2002 using drug funds. “It was used in narcotics until it was ‘made,’ ” he said, referring to what happens when a criminal element begins to recognize a vehicle as an undercover car.

    Berrong said the vehicle is now being used as an undercover vehicle for evening shift patrol to assist in covert surveillance regarding copper thefts. Assistant Chief Deputy Garner also has been driving a Marauder. It was seized from a dope dealer out of Memphis and given to the department by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

    What the cities say

    With the county Car Wars raging, what do the cities of Alcoa and Maryville have to say about fleet management? The two chiefs of police said that having a fleet management program helps keep vehicles running well and running longer.

    Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp and Alcoa Police Chief Ken Burge said they know the value of buying good vehicles and maintaining them through a fleet management program, which are bought with city tax dollars.

    Crisp said his office has 39 marked cruisers and 14 unmarked, and has six spare vehicles that are marked and three that are unmarked.

    “I have 17 reserve officers, and (the spares) are used for that,” Crisp said. “They’re also used when a car is wrecked or is on maintenance, so there are not six sitting there all the time.”

    Crisp said that in the past budget year, the department bought nine cars, but that some years they may only buy one or two cars.

    “Marked units go out at 80,000 miles and 6 years old. The unmarked units go out at 100,000 miles and 8 years,” he said.

    Crisp said the spares are vehicles that would have been replaced if they had been kept in patrol. “My spares probably have 120,000 or 100,000 miles,” he said. “Some are in good shape, so I leave them as spares.”

    New cars are bought through what Crisp called an equipment replacement fund.

    “That is money set aside in every year as you forecast those vehicles that will be replaced,” he said.

    Crisp said Maryville’s official population is more than 25,000 while the service population is 90,000. “Those are individuals who are working, shopping, going to eat in Maryville or who are traveling through to the Smoky Mountains,” he said.

    Chief Ken Burge with Alcoa Police Department credited Steve Hillis with the City of Alcoa for handling fleet maintenance and purchasing. The fleet is on a seven-year replacement cycle, which works out to about 100,000 miles on each vehicle before they are replaced, he said.

    “We’re in the sixth year of the seven year replacement cycle,” said Burge. “This (plan) happened before I got here. I think it’s a good plan. It works well. Individual cars seem much better taken care of than pool cars.”

    Burge said getting seven years life out of a marked car is simply excellent. Another benefit of this plan is they don’t have to install and remove the equipment because the cruiser is lasting longer. “It has been working for us. I would praise Steve Hillis, his work and plan for putting it together,” Burge said.

    APD plans on buying six cruisers this year. “Technically, the scheme calls for them to replace 14 in the following budget year, and we’re hopeful to spread that out,” he said of buying seven one year and seven the next. “A lot depends on the maintenance records and the current conditions. We want to balance out purchasing to a more even keel,” Burge said. “It makes it easier to have a similar number each year than come up one year to have a large number replaced. It just takes time to get there.”

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