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Clay County Commission ordered to allocate nearly $1 million to Sheriff’s Office

Posted at 5:24 PM, Aug 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-30 00:35:25-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A judge has ordered the Clay County Commission to add nearly $1 million to the Clay County Sheriff’s Office budget this year and admonished several county officials for "intentionally" manipulating the budget "in bad faith."

Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo III sued after he alleged his budget was illegally slashed in retaliation for an investigation his office undertook.

The Clay County Commission — including Commissioners Jerry Nolte, Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen — and the county’s chief budget officer, Laurene Portwood, were among the parties named in the lawsuit.

Clay County Circuit Court Judge Daren L. Adkins determined there was “clear and competent evidence” that the actions taken by Portwood, Ridgeway and Owen “were ‘arbitrary, capricious or in bad faith’ to the extent they intentionally manipulated the budgeting process.”

He ordered Clay County to allocate an additional $755,152 to pay for existing contracts for food and healthcare along with $230,218 to cover the county jail’s administrative costs through the end of the year.

According to Thursday’s judgment, Vescovo believed Portwood proposed and Ridgeway and Owen voted to cut the Sheriff’s Office budget “as retaliation for … taking the complaint by the County Clerk of tampering with public records” by Portwood.

The County Commission also erred by not providing notice and the opportunity for the Sheriff’s Office to respond after the budget decrease was proposed.

State law requires the County Commission to fund any contracts it approves for county offices and departments.

The judge found “credible and competent” evidence that commissioners knowingly failed to budget enough money to meeting contractual obligations and that Portwood knew the budget she submitted was inadequate.

The Sheriff’s Office has been unable to pay its balances for contracted food service and medical care at the county jail due to the budget cuts.

According to the lawsuit, Portwood’s office unilaterally “reorganized” the 2018 proposed budget submitted by the Sheriff’s Office, but it was “made to appear as though this was the Sheriff’s Office’s amended request” when it was not.

Vescovo’s office notified the county commission in December 2018 that the proposed budget was inadequate and underfunded the office’s obligations by roughly $1.4 million.

The budget was adopted anyway in January 2019 with Ridgeway and Owen voting in favor and Nolte opposing the budget proposal.

"I thought all along the Sheriff’s budget was insufficient for his needs," Nolte said. Waiting to pay "created more tension, more hard feelings and, perhaps worst of all, it’s undermined the confidence people need to have in their government."

The adopted operating budget allocated $1,788,829 to the Sheriff’s Office, which was more than $1.3 million less than the originally requested operating budget of $3,177,273.

By June, the Sheriff’s Office informed the county it would not be able to pay the County Commission-approved contracts as required by law due to “inadequate funding,” according to court documents.

The judge denied Vescovo's request to be reimbursed for attorney fees "to correct the illegal actions of the Commission."

Clay County issued a statement about the judgment: "While Clay County does not agree with the decision in favor of the plaintiff on Count One, we are pleased that the Sheriff’s claim for attorney fees was not deemed valid by the judge. Clay County is grateful the judge expedited his decision and quickly issued a ruling."

Adkins' ruling did acknowledge that, while he denied Count II, state law allows a Missouri sheriff to pay attorneys from his budget "for the compensation of employees."

Nolte called a Special Term meeting of the Clay County Commission at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 9 in the the third floor Commission Hearing Room at the Clay County Courthouse.

He said he would like to transfer the funds to the Sheriff immediately.

"Perhaps where we start looking is where our budget was increased in other places," Nolte said. "Perhaps we need to move that money where it belongs."

Ridgeway didn't address allegations of impropriety, but she did release a statement to 41 Action News Thursday.

"I’m pleased that the Judge ruled in favor of the County on two of the three counts alleged in this lawsuit over taxpayer dollars," Ridgeway told 41 Action News in an email. "While I don’t agree with the Judge’s decision on one of the three counts in the lawsuit, more time is needed to consider what next steps will be. I’m glad the judge ruled quickly so Clay County can move forward."