State to take over sheriff's dept?
By Daniel Axelrod
Forget about terrorists attacking the Pilgrim nuclear power plant or pollution and global warming potentially causing health and safety hazards such as red tide.
"(Plymouth County Commissioners) Jeffrey Welch and Timothy McMullen constitute the most clear and present danger to public safety in Plymouth County - they're playing politics with public safety," Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald said.
McDonald, R-Kingston, was responding to a press release and comments by Welch calling for a temporary state takeover of the sheriff's department "in response to the chronic financial problems and runaway overspending."
Welch wants the legislature to empower Governor Mitt Romney to appoint a five-member board to oversee the department's finances.
The board would keep the sheriff in office, but make him one of the board's appointees.
McMullen, who's chairman of the three-member board of county commissioners, has publicly criticized McDonald's department alleging financial mismanagement.
Welch and McMullen supported previous sheriff Joseph McDonough, D-Scituate, who lost in a nasty and tightly contested election this past November.
McMullen did not return calls for comment to address whether his comments were politically motivated and Welch adamantly denied that notion.
"Mr. Welch's ignorance pervades his foolish comments, which defy reality," McDonald said. "His lack of knowledge is profound and unbelievable and I'm wondering what's going through this man's head because this guy's really out of his mind."
Welch attacked McDonald's hiring of 24 additional corrections officers, which cost the county $500,000 in training costs alone.
He also accused sheriff McDonald of creating "new high-paying administrative positions filled with friends, political supporters and campaign contributors" ranging in salary from $70,000 to more than $80,000.
Since taking office in January, McDonald created a deputy chief of staff position for friend Andrew Parks, made high school friend and campaign manager Paul Chiano a program director and hired Diana Lothrop - who helped McDonald during his transition into office - for the new post of director of administration and finance.
When Lothrop stepped down McDonald said announced he was replacing her $87,554 salary with the two new salaries of Jack Franey ($65,860), the former Plymouth County auditor, as well as John Finnerty ($87,554) as the new director of administration and finance.
"McDonald's profligate spending habits and cronyism are a threat to public safety," Welch said.
Welch disparaged McDonald for awarding at least two recent settlement payouts to the union representing the prison's employees for grievances against the previous sheriff.
The county commissioner also said closing the guard shack at the prison entrance reduced safety along the prison's perimeter and criticized the sheriff because the department still owes the jail's vendors nearly $1 million yet the union received money owed on stipends for physical training.
All the controversy surrounding the way the sheriff's department is run revolves around its deficit.
How big is the deficit?
McDonald estimates the sheriff's department could be more than $4 million over budget.
He attributes the budget deficit to "out of control litigation expenses we'll live with for years to come" left over from McDonough's tenure, about $2 million in overtime costs to man the jail and an overall decline in the number of federal inmates in the system.
An auditor's report by state auditor Joseph DeNucci's office conducted at the request of McDonald when he was sworn into office in January tentatively estimated that the sheriff's department is short $690,000 short for its operating budget and down more than $800,000 in revenue to operate the jail.
But the state auditor's office wouldn't set the sheriff's total deficit in stone citing too many unforeseen potential costs such as pending litigation left over from McDonough's reign.
"The roughly $600,000 deficit is all we could document," Glenn Briere, a spokesman for state auditor Joe DeNucci, said.
"We said in the audit there were so many uncertainties facing the sheriff's department that it was impossible to come up with all the possible ways the budget was in deficit," Briere said.
Briere wasn't aware of any precedent for the state taking over a specific county department though he did say the state runs almost half of the 15 counties.
Briere added that some counties, such as Essex, were taken over by the state while others are state-run because its simply more efficient.
Some of the counties taken over by the state include Essex, Middlesex, Worcester, Hamden and Berkshire. Locally, Barnstable and Plymouth counties operate independently along with Norfolk Bristol, Dukes and Nantucket.
"Over time, some county departments like jails and houses of correction had fewer duties and became so much more dependent on state funding it made more sense to have counties operated as state funded departments," Briere said.
"The only major functions presently remaining in hands of county governments in Massachusetts are running jails and registry of deeds because generally counties handle vast areas of unincorporated land and you don't find those areas in this state," Briere said.
Officials from the state's Executive Office for Administration & Finance were unavailable to comment on how a state takeover of the sheriff's department would work and even Welch wasn't entirely sure.
For his part, McDonald said the lack of duties of the current county government shows it should be dismantled.
As for the Plymouth County sheriff department's deficit, the state house and senate Committee on Ways and Means in mid June approved an extra $1.5 million to help with its budget deficit as part of $79.5 million of emergency supplemental spending across the state.
Meanwhile, the state's 2005 audit affirmed the bulk of that revenue deficit comes from the declining the number of federal inmates in the county jail.
Plymouth receives more than $80 as a per day housing fee for such prisoners.
Locally though, the federal government is housing a greater number of inmates at the Essex County House of Corrections.
The Stafford County facility in New Hampshire recently reopened after a long closure absorbing many federal inmates
The Essex jail was built in part with federal funds. It's charging in the $60 range to house federal inmates, according to McDonald.
Another financial problem facing the jail is that the sheriff's department must potentially have to spend nearly $1 million to pick up the cost of retirement and medical benefits for corrections officers who hired after 1991.
The county recently shifted that cost to the sheriff's department claiming it's now the department's job to get the state to fulfill a 1991 memorandum of understanding issued by Governor William Weld that the state would take over all funding and related costs for houses of corrections.
Even the town of Plymouth is in on the act, claiming the department owes $400,000 to $600,000 because the town spent the last three years under-billing the sheriff's department by a factor of 10 for water and sewer service.
Altogether, the county is seeking nearly $1 million more from the sheriff's department toward the county pension fund, plus almost $1 million for the retired benefits.
McDonald sees those requests as politically motivated attacks on his department to sabotage his efforts to get the department's finances straight.
"These clowns Welch and McMullen whacked us with these costs and they're holding me hostage with that and now they want to criticize me?" McDonald said.
"Instead of working together with me to try to get the state to pay this they just suddenly threw (the cost of retired employees' benefits) in my lap as a cop out," McDonald added.
County Commissioner and Sheriff square off
Welch may have supported McDonough during the election, but Welch bristled at the notion that his campaign to have the state temporarily take over the sheriff's department's finances is politically motivated.
"It doesn't matter who it is running the department it appears there's a structural deficit at the department and the state needs to come in and take a look at how things run and see they run smoothly," Welch said.
"I'm asking for a Republican governor to appoint people of his choosing. If the (financial problems) are something that existed under McDonough, I don't see any problem with the state coming in and fixing things so the department is left with a stable budget because if we let things go the state may have to take over the jail outright if this goes on another couple years."
To Welch, McDonald is the one whose decisions are influenced by politics.
"Within 15 minutes of being sworn in, McDonald fired 23 corrections professionals for political reasons even though on the campaign trail he said he'd give people a chance to keep their job by interviewing them," Welch said.
"Those firings cost the county $200,000 in unemployment claims and the list of firings was indistinguishable from a Joe McDonough supporter list, yet McDonald didn't even spend a week interviewing them," Welch added.
McDonald called the firing of the 23 employees "money well spent" and added Welch inflated the unemployment claims costs by $20,000 more than they actually were.
"I couldn't interview these people and talk to them because the previous administration barred me from coming and speaking to them," McDonald said.
Welch countered that it is illegal for McDonald to interview county employees before he officially took office and that when he did become sheriff McDonald hired a childhood buddy to be director of programs.
"Welch is citing a fictitious state law," McDonald said. "The previous administration tried to prevent me from making a smooth transition by barring me from walking in and interviewing people so I made a lot of hiring decisions without interviews."
"I fired three cousins of McDonough and his ex-wife was the director of programs - a position for which she had no qualifications," McDonald said.
Chiano, McDonald's new director of programs, has a master's degree from Villanova and experience with the Suffolk County Sheriff's department and a trainer for the federal government's prison bureau, McDonald said.
Spending more to save more?
The new sheriff said creating new posts to manage the department's finances will lead to the department saving more money in the long run because finances will be better managed.
But Welch attacked McDonald's creation of new posts - such as deputy chief of staff, a department auditor and a director of administration and finance - calling them patronage jobs and adding that in previous administrations the sheriff's chief of staff handled the department's finances.
"Once again Welch's ignorance pervades here - this guy knows so little he doesn't know what he doesn't know," McDonald said.
"We actually have eight fewer administration jobs then under McDonough," McDonald added.
New positions to address the sheriff's department's finances were created because even when the auditor's office audited the department in 2003 it found a $2.7 million deficit, McDonald said.
The chief of staff is meant to manage the prison's officers when the sheriff leaves the prison to handle numerous other responsibilities, McDonald said.
The 2003 auditor's report criticized the department for not having a cost accounting system.
McDonald hired a certified public accountant and a former state auditor were part of creating such an oversight process nowadays, according to McDonald.
McDonald also shot back that he inherited the department's financial difficulties from McDonough.
"Mr. Welch approved the hirings of John Finnerty as our new director and Jack Franey as an auditor in the finance department so it's ironic he'd vote to approve their employment last week and then say this is a problem," McDonald said.
McDonald added that McDonough's mismanagment included not having a formal contract to handle $8 million worth of food services for the prisoners, not putting the contract out to bid and even spending the profits made on canteen knick-knacks bought by prisoners on feeding them instead of putting the money toward extra programs for the inmates.
"I'd love to have a reintegration program or have an alcohol or domestic violence councilor, but instead that money was spent on food, which that it was not intended to be spent on," McDonald said.
McDonald thinks the key to improving the sheriff's department lies in cutting off what the department doesn't need and can't afford.
The sheriff estimates shutting down the guard shack check point at the entrance will save the department $180,000 this year alone and McDonald thinks security has actually been bolstered because the money is being better spent with roving patrols of officers with drug sniffing dogs around the perimeter.
The sheriff's office's core mission is handling the 1,549 inmates in the county jail in addition to serving notices for the courts and providing support to state and local police.
So to cut costs, McDonald is also looking into shutting down the sheriff's department's criminal bureau of investigation, a move Welch criticized.
"The BCI is like (the CBS television show Crime Scene Investigation) here in Plymouth County," Welch said. "They investigate crimes, do fingerprinting in towns like Plympton that can't afford to investigate crimes or they have to call state police crime lab, which is really backed up."
"The idea of eliminating that is ridiculous because I don't think you're going to see corrections officers from the jail out dusting for fingerprints," Welch said.
McDonald countered Welch's statements were yet another example of his ignorance.
"BCI is nothing like CSI, we offer supplementation to local police in terms of photos and fingerprints, but we're not doing DNA," McDonald said.
"The state police are coming into the Plymouth County sheriff's office soon to install a state of the art crime lab headquarters for the southeast region of Massachusetts and they're going to handle all that type of stuff so I'm sorry to say Mr. Welch is opining about things he has no clue about once again," McDonald said.
Their pound of flesh
Welch was particularly critical of McDonald hiring of 24 new corrections officers, recently settlement of disputes with union employees and the creation of an in-house legal team.
To keep paying the prison's 458 full-time employees salaries, McDonald also stopped paying vendors, which are owed $1 million - another move Welch cited to illustrate McDonald's lack of fiscal responsibility.
McDonald fired back he didn't want to have a repeat incident to what happened in 2003.
Back then, employees went without paychecks because of the department's budget problems under McDonough. Plus, state funding will cover the money owed to vendors, McDonald said.
The 38-year-old former assistant district attorney added that hiring two attorneys will save the department thousands - during the last two years the department spent $1.5 million on outside firms' legal fees - as the department finishes handling the glut of litigation built up under McDonough.
But Welch doesn't buy any of it.
"The unions endorsed Joe McDonald and with their support they have come looking for their pound of flesh so settling these grievances is a payoff to the union bosses as was putting through that class of cadets," Welch said.
Welch claims the new sheriff shouldn't be hiring new employees and administrators during the first year of his term when the number of inmates is declining.
"Welch's lack of knowledge is so profound you could fill a book with what he doesn't know about corrections," McDonald said.
"The premise that there's fewer inmates isn't true since our capacity is 1,600 inmates and our head count as of July was 1,549 inmates. Just because the jail was given an accreditation to operate with a lower number of officers in the past doesn't mean we weren't short 38 officers and that's what led to huge overtime costs," McDonald added.
During fiscal year 2005, the jail was allotted $600,000 in overtime funds, but ended up spending more than $2 million, according to the rookie sheriff.
McDonald argued the $500,000 cost of putting two classes cadets through the officer training far outweighed overtime costs and will continue to save the department money - especially when the sheriff's department works with other local sheriff's departments to split the cost of sending more future cadets for training.
Meanwhile, corrections employee union head Larry Boucher, one of the grievances settled involved a move by McDonough in November 2004 in which the sheriff implemented an increase in the number of prisoners housed in the jail without or a bed increase without increasing the number of security staff.
The grievance worked its way through several levels of appeals and even to an arbitrator and the union won at all levels, but McDonough continued to fight, Boucher said.
Another grievance dated back to December of 2000 when the previous sheriff removed all union workers from the county and staffed it with only non-union workers.
Again, the union won its case at every level including in court, but the sheriff continued to fight as the overtime payments in the case accrued thousands of dollars in interest.
"For Welch to insinuate that the sheriff is a puppet of the union and that that's why he settled grievances and hired more officers to work for the institution is extremely offensive," Boucher said.
"This is Politics 101 and of course I'm surprised it started because sheriff's campaign for reelection isn't until 2010, but McMullen is running for reelection soon and he and Welch were McDonough supporters so Welch is launching a coordinated attack (to cause bad publicity for McDonald)."