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Nobody knows who ordered new sheriff’s patrol car

By MICHAEL MURRAY
michael.murray@americustimesrecorder.com
www.americustimesrecorder.com

AMERICUS — The Sumter County Board of Commissioners met for its monthly work session meeting on Sept. 8 and then reconvened for the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 15. Both meetings were held in the Sumter County Courthouse.
During the work session, Sumter County Fire Chief John Ekaitis opened the meeting with a request for permission to allow the county’s new rescue truck to travel to Jekyll Island on Sept.18 to be displayed at the Georgia State Firefighter and Fire Chiefs Conference.
The board approved the request before Ekaitis read a card that the department had received to the commissioners. The card was sent to thank the department for a prompt response to an emergency situation on U.S. Highway 19 South. It described the situation surrounding the emergency and the steps that the firefighters took to remedy the situation, finally saying, “If you hadn’t come so quickly, we probably would have lost our home.”
After Board Chairman Randy Howard and other commissioners thanked Ekaitis for sharing the card with them, Ekaitis informed them that the department’s public fire safety awareness program has been receiving positive feedback in the community.
Sumter County Emergency Management Agency director, Nigel Poole, addressed the board before Howard read a proclamation declaring the month of September “National Emergence Preparedness Month in Sumter County. After the reading was finished, Poole said that “This is a good way for us to be more prepared and to help prepare our citizens for all types of emergency situations.”
Sumter County Sheriff Pete Smith addressed the board about an issue regarding the purchase of a new patrol car to replace one that had been in a wreck. Commissioner Clay Jones asked Smith what the value of the wrecked vehicle was and Smith responded that he thinks it was around $3,100.
Howard told Smith that the purchase of six vehicles had already been approved and that this would mean the purchase of a seventh car, of which the board was previously unaware.
“That gives us five cars, replacing road patrols, and two transport vehicles,” Smith said.
Howard asked Smith if he had ordered the vehicle and Smith responded that he had not. Bernie Merritt, who would be in charge of purchasing a new vehicle, also stated that he had no knowledge of the order.
“I didn’t order it, personally,” Smith stated after informing the board that the vehicle had been delivered. “Then who ordered it?” Jones asked.
Smith went on to say that there had been a lot of confusion surrounding the recent purchases of vehicles for the sheriff’s office, but “I think that we are obligated to purchase this car.”
Howard expressed concerns about how the car would be paid for and asked Merritt once more if he had knowledge of the purchase order. Merritt responded that he did not. He informed the board that the purchases of any vehicles bought with SPLOST funds would be processed by his department and that he was aware of the purchase of two transport vehicles and four patrol cars, but had not issued a purchase order for a seventh vehicle.
Smith informed the board that the vehicle had been ordered from Don Jackson Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep in Union City. Sumter County Administrator Bill Twomey told the board that he had contacted the dealership and found that the car in question is believed to have been delivered in July. Twomey advised the board that a representative of the dealership had said, “This was an emergency purchase to replace a wrecked vehicle. It’s silver. It’s a 2015 charger. This car was ordered by the Sheriff’s Office and that’s all I need to know. If you have any questions, you can ask Melinda.” Melinda’s position within the organization was not made clear at the meeting, however there is a Melinda who is administrative assistant to the sheriff and chief deputy.
Commissioner Mark Waddell said to Smith, “Somebody ordered the vehicle. Whoever orders the vehicle has to have some sort of level of authority.” Smith stated that he believes the confusion began with the different scenarios that his office had to go through to purchase these vehicles.
Twomey said he would contact the dealership again and get more details on the order and inform the board of his findings.
Howard pointed out that the car does not currently have insurance or a tag and asked Smith if the vehicle is currently in use. Smith replied that the vehicle is currently in use and Sumter County attorney, Kimberly Reid, advised the sheriff that the vehicle should be parked until a tag and insurance have been purchased. Smith replied that he was previously unaware that the vehicle did not have insurance.
Howard suggested that the board table the issue until the next meeting, when more information is available. Before the issue was tabled, Waddell commented, “We have specific funds designated for SPLOST and we all know that SPLOST is not coming in as we originally projected, so we can’t lose any money from SPLOST … We would be taking money away from other projects that we have already designated the funds to go to. Otherwise, it has to come out of the sheriff’s budget. That’s the only way.”
Jones asked Twomey if the cost of the vehicle could be added to the sheriff’s budget this year and subtracted when next year’s budget is set. Twomey advised that, though a similar situation might be possible, SPLOST funds can only be used for designated purchases.
The board revisited the issue at the Sept. 15 meeting. Howard reminded the board of the circumstances surrounding the vehicle’s order, and Twomey stated that since the vehicle was ordered before the end of June, it must be included in the 2014-15 fiscal year budget. Howard went on to remind the board that, since the car currently has no tag or insurance, it can not legally be in use. “How are we going to take care of this? That’s the issue that we’re running into now,” he said.
Twomey later said, “To me, it’s clear that this is not a SPLOST transaction. It didn’t go through Bernie [Merritt], who is charged with handling SPLOST transactions.”
Howard asked Twomey if it might be possible to retroactively amend last year’s budget to include that purchase, and County finance director, Janice Jarvis informed him that the Sheriff’s Office had finished the previous fiscal year slightly over budget. Jarvis warned the board that the Sumter County audit will be held soon and that a write-up could be issued for exceeding the budget at a departmental level if a budget amendment is not created to account for the rogue vehicle. Twomey then stated that, in order to create such an amendment, money would likely have to be taken from another department that did not exceed its 2014-15 budget.
When asked if anyone had suggestions, Waddell stated, “I’m not willing to get written up and I’m not willing to take money from another department’s funds that didn’t go over their budget. That’s part of our word to those departments that, if they save money, they can do capital expenditures.”
Chief Deputy Col. Eric Bryant, representing the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office at the meeting, said, “It sounds like you have a clearer understanding of how we got here. I think the next big hurdle is what we’re discussing now.”
Howard told Bryant that if the sheriff “needs to purchase a car, regardless of the reason … he needs to come sit down with Mr. Twomey and they’ll go to Bernie [Meritt] … This was not an approved budget item … If the department had come to us before and we had amended the budget, we would not be where we are now … ” Howard went on to say that if this happened again, the vehicle may not be paid for.
Commissioner Thomas Jordan said, “We should have a policy in place so that this doesn’t happen again … It shouldn’t be where someone can order a car without the proper notification to the people that are supposed to be doing it. To me, that’s why we’re here, because we have a loophole … We need to fix it so that this can’t happen again … ”
“We can create every rule in the book,” Waddell added. “But if the sheriff or an elected official goes on and does something like this, we can’t stop them.” Howard responded that, if a similar incident were to occur in the future, the responsible party could be taken to court if necessary.
Waddell said, “At this moment, my vote is ‘no’. Not to pay for that because it didn’t go through the proper procedure. It’s not fair to the county. It’s not fair to everybody that does what they’re supposed to do … and then a vehicle gets ordered and we come back and try to move money around that we have all, as a group, worked to save … I’m not in favor of paying for anything until we know what we can do … ”
Howard addressed Bryant, as the sheriff’s office representative, saying, “What really concerns me more than anything else is that the car has no insurance. It as no ARI tracking record on it and it has no tag, which is illegal. and it’s being used. I saw it today.”
Waddell reminded the board that Reid had advised the sheriff to park the vehicle at the board’s work session the previous week.
Bryant responded, saying that the car had not been in use on that day, saying that there are two similar vehicles currently in the sheriff’s fleet. Bryant said the department was under the impression that the sheriff’s office was covered by a fleet insurance policy, which covered each of the cars in the fleet as a group. He also said that he would take the keys after the meeting to ensure that the vehicle remains parked.
The board agreed to hold a called meeting as soon as possible to give them time to discuss the options. That meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the courthouse and is open to the public.
Following the discussion with the sheriff during the Sept. 8 work session, Reid advised the board that, due to a recent Supreme Court decision, the county’s sign ordinance needed to be revised. The court decision states that a sign ordinance cannot include content-based restrictions, meaning that exemptions in the ordinance can not be granted to different institutions or to groups that will be posting a sign for a specific purpose not defined in the ordinance.
Reid stated that she will begin drafting a new ordinance as soon as possible.
The board discussed bids submitted for the demolition of three structures in the county. Sumter County Code Enforcement Officer Mike Sudduth informed the board that Tommy McCurley had submitted the lowest bid for each of the projects and the board agreed to grant him the contracts. Each of these contracts were presented at the regular meeting and Reid asked Sudduth to review the contracts before aproval.
Sumter County Public Works Director Frank Whitaker informed thr board that the approved construction on South Georgia Technical College Parkway is scheduled to begin on Sept. 19 and is expected to be completed in April 2017. He said  a groundbreaking ceremony for the project will be held Sept. 29 at South Georgia Technical College.
Twomey led a discussion about business licenses and regulatory fees. He stated that the board needs to explore options on how regulatory fees and occupational taxes will be assessed in the future.
Commissioner George Torbert advised the board that the Land Bank Authority will need start-up capital in order to proceed. The group discussed contacting the City of Americus to talk about the best way to share the costs of starting the organization.
Sudduth wrapped up the meeting by informing the board members of progress that has been made on the Southwestern Estates Project on Felder Street. “The project’s come a long way from the plan that was originally introduced,” he said.
At the Sept. 15 regular meeting, the board discussed the approval of a request from Jimmy and Laura Faircloth to change the zoning of a property on Ga. Highway 27 East from residential to commercial. Planning and Zoning had previously approved the request. Reid advised the board that any zoning change must wait until the next meeting to be approved.
Representatives of Southwestern Estates answered questions from the board about the upcoming project.
A representative from Sumter County Fire and Rescue addressed the board about the county’s “Hear the beat where you sleep” program, aimed at raising awareness of fire safety in the county. Howard then read a proclamation about Fire Prevention Week.
A discussion was held on the codifying of Sumter County fire fees, dealing with how fees should be assessed in the case of uninhabitable structures. The board discussed changes made to requests from Wesley Chavers and Eli Properties regarding property taxes.
The board approved an agreement for Sumter County to serve as fiscal agent for the Southwest Georgia Children’s Alliance and the Americus-Sumter County Airport Authority.
The board held a discussion of future permit requirements for non-public wells in the county.
The board approved a request from the Public Works Department for a trade of surplus weapons for new weapons to be used by deputies supervising inmate work details.
The board discussed a letter from the owner of Reflections Sports Bar and Grill in Plains before approving an easement for drainage between John Warren Dean and Sumter County.