CLAY COUNTY — Sheriff Paul Vescovo is suing Clay County and its three county commissioners following “drastic” cuts made to his department’s operating budget.
The sheriff seeks $1.75 million from the 2019 Clay County General Fund Budget to cover obligations and shortfalls related to the responsibilities of his office, as well as legal fees and damages.
“He wants, in essence, the budget to be essentially restored, and one way to do that is to pay the contracts the county has entered into,” said Fritz Riesmeyer, one of the attorneys representing Vescovo.
The petition, filed Friday, April 19, contends the adopted county budget for 2019, as it relates to the sheriff’s operating budget, is “illegal” and fails to comply with state law, as it underfunds the sheriff’s budget and prevents the department “from providing necessary equipment, materials, and training to fulfill (the sheriff’s) obligations to provide for the safety of the citizens of Clay County and fulfill his duties of keeping the peace, policing, suppressing crime and arresting criminals.”
Vescovo said filing the lawsuit was not an easy decision, but he had no choice.
“I cannot carry out my statutory duties as sheriff,” he said.
He said the County Commission is not meeting its obligation in funding the sheriff’s department.
Referencing contracts for food and medical care for inmates at the Clay County Detention Center, Vescovo said, “These are contracts that were signed, and they are not giving me funding to pay those contracts, which they entered into.”
If no action is taken, Riesmeyer said the Sheriff’s Office could run out of funds in June or July.
“The sheriff is not going to be doing necessary training at this point,” Riesmeyer said. “He’s not going to have the adequate things for the materials, for the bullet-proof vests that need to be replaced, the bullets … There is not money in the budget to do all of those things. … There’s not adequate money for the gas to patrol the county roads outside of the city.”
At the beginning of the year, the commission adopted the 2019 budget for the county on a 2-1 vote with Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway and Western Commissioner Owen voting in favor and Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte voting against.
A Jan. 28 statement from the County Commission, signed by Ridgeway and Owen and with a “VOTED NO” stamp on the signature line for Nolte, states, “Our budget was prepared in collaboration with every office and department involved in providing quality service to Clay County. Key features include increased funding for the Sheriff’s Office and multiple capital improvement projects funded primarily through the voter-approved use tax. Officeholder budgets were supported and preserved while the 2019 adopted budget remains at an overall net neutral level with 2018.”
Ridgeway said she stands by that statement, writing in an email to Courier-Tribune, “not only was the Sheriff’s budget not reduced but in fact was increased, which can be proven also with documents from the Sheriff’s Department. Further, there were public meetings where Commissioners and the Sheriff and representatives at his office were present for budget meetings.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, April 23, Ridgeway had not seen a copy of the lawsuit.
“The Sheriff seems to have supplied the press with a copy of the Petition but failed to provide even a courtesy copy to the Commission so, at this point, I cannot respond to what is only purported to be filed,” she said in the email.
Nolte issued the following statement April 19: “While I cannot comment on the current legal action, the most important function of government is the safety of its citizens. It is a matter of extensive public record that I voted against both the current and previous county budgets in large part because of funding levels for the Sheriff’s Department and other areas of vital government services. Like many citizens, I am frustrated by the enormous drain on county taxpayer’s money over such a large volume of litigation on issues like the state audit and others. I believe many of the actions taken by the County Commission are not in the best interest of the people we serve.”
Owen could not be contacted for comment at press time.
Ridgeway did offer some insight into her thought process during budget discussions, saying proper use of taxpayer dollars is her focus in all budgetary decisions.
The 2019 county budget was approved with amounts greater than requested for field operations contracts and commodities, civil process and court security contracts, and 911 emergency management contracts and commodities. The $1.7 million in cuts to the sheriff’s operating budget were in the areas of civil process and court security commodities, detention contracts and commodities, and administration contracts and commodities.
Vescovo said he worried inmates’ 8th Amendment rights would be infringed upon if the money he is seeking through the lawsuit is not restored to his department’s budget.
“I cannot not provide them with food,” he said. “I cannot not provide them with medical care.”