• 50°

$500K: Is it cold, hard cash or an illusion?

AG opinion not changing stalemate

 

It depends on who’s talking. One side says the disputed $500,000 that could be used to move the county jail to the Ohio River Valley Juvenile Correctional Facility in Franklin Furnace can be spent anyway the Lawrence County Commissioners wish.

That is the view of Lawrence County Prosecutor Brigham Anderson after receiving an opinion on the issue from state attorney general Mike DeWine.

“The action that we took was a legal action and the attorney general’s office has confirmed it,” Anderson said. “I believe it is there available for them to appropriate.”

The county auditor says, however, the opinion still puts the authority of certification with the auditor and whether it does or doesn’t, it doesn’t matter, the money isn’t there to spend.

“It is basically what I thought it would be,” Lawrence County Auditor Jason Stephens said. “The direct question wasn’t asked: Who brings matters before the budget commission? I think it was answered (in the opinion) … ‘the county auditor, as fiscal officer for the county, is required to certify the amount of any excess revenue to the budget commission.’ If I am required to certify on the back end, I am the one to certify upfront. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact we don’t have the money to run the ORV.”

In December, Anderson requested DeWine to respond to a series of questions concerning the authority of the budget commission, of which Anderson is a member. The commission, also made up of Stephens and Lawrence County Treasurer Stephen Burcham, determines the amount of revenue expected to come into the county each year.

After that certification is made, the county commission determines how it will be appropriated.

“I think the attorney general looked at the law and based an opinion on what the law said and I’m glad we got the certification,” Burcham said on Monday.

Earlier in December at a budget commission meeting, Stephens refused to bring before that body a request to add $500,000 to the amount the commission could spend in 2015 because he said data did not support that increase.

That half a million dollars was considered a possible way to fund part of the move of the jail to the ORV, offered to the county by the state following the current jail’s failure to meet state inspections. Burcham and Anderson voted in favor of increasing the revenue.

“Members of a county budget commission have equal votes on matters that come before the budget commission, except for waivers contemplated pursuant to R.C. 5705.281,” DeWine’s opinion states.

That part of the code concerns waiving the requirement of a taxing authority to have a tax budget.

“No other statute requires the votes of a county budget commission’s members to be weighted differently,” the opinion states.

DeWine also stated that since the ORC does not address “which members of a county budget commission may make a motion or call for a vote, we therefore, cannot apply any particular law or set of rules to answer your questions. The budget commission should determine the procedural conventions it wishes to follow and proceed according to that determination.”

Anderson also asked if the county auditor may issue the official certificate of estimated resources without review and approval of the budget commission.

“The county auditor, as fiscal officer for the county, is required to certify certain excesses and deficiencies in revenue to the county budget commission,” according to the opinion. “In the case of excess revenue, if the county budget commission determines that the county auditor’s certification is reasonable, the budget commission then certifies another amended official certificate.”

The $500,000 along with a $250,000 check the county received over the sale of Sherman Thompson Towers has been considered a way to fund part of the jail move. The auditor’s office has asked for direction from the state on whether that can be spent.

Last week, however, the county commissioners learned the state had removed all the furniture from the ORV and was requiring the county to replace the locks, adding more costs to the move.

“That is good news,” commissioner Bill Pratt said about DeWine’s opinion. “It comes at a time when we could use it.”

At last week’s commission meeting Pratt said he was not averse to changing his mind about the move, if it would harm the county’s finances.

“(The jail move) hasn’t been scrapped,” he said. “If that check is available, it will have to be certified by the budget commission and if the $500,000 can be appropriated, that will get us a long way toward making that move. But there are other needs like shoring up the sheriff’s budget. And that check is onetime money.”

Commission president Les Boggs agreed the jail move could still happen, but he wants to meet with state officials.

“I think what we want to do is have a follow-up meeting with the state,” Boggs said. “Subsequent meetings to make sure we’re on the same page and in the same time frame.”

But Stephens maintains that half a million dollars doesn’t exist.

“It doesn’t change the fact we haven’t received the revenue in question,” he said.