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Hall sheriffs budget is target of scrutiny
Report by businessman Norton questions inmate housing, vehicles, accounting
Steve Cronic

A prominent North Georgia businessman has taken it upon himself to hold Hall County government — the sheriff's office in particular — accountable for its spending.

Frank Norton Jr. released a report last week calling on the Hall County Sheriff's Office to reconsider its accounting practices, find ways to reduce employee overtime and to charge more to board out-of-county inmates at the Hall County Jail.

He also calls for the sheriff's office to increase the number of officers patrolling the county as well as its number of bilingual employees, and to sell a $200,000 vehicle designed to contain meth labs that Norton says seems more like a trophy than a useful tool.

The report, sent to a number of Hall County officials and judges, details other ways the real estate executive believes the department could run more efficiently. It is the result of months of record requests and meetings with sheriff's office officials.

"I think government needs to think like business people, think frugal, especially as we're moving to a decline in tax base," Norton said.

Sheriff Steve Cronic responds that while he felt some suggestions from Norton's report have been helpful, it's not entirely possible to run a sheriff's office like a real estate company. He also says Norton's report includes some "erroneous" numbers.

The sheriff's office is "not like any other business," Cronic said.

The two men are quick to say they're not at odds over the report, however.

Norton says he has no vendetta against the sheriff's office, and that he's willing to scrutinize any facet of local government.

Norton currently serves on the sheriff's office's newly-formed budget oversight committee. Cronic said Norton's report won't have any affect on his relationship with the department.

Both men say there are just a few issues that they agree to disagree on.

"I don't mind when we have people that disagree with us," Cronic said.

Norton took interest in the sheriff's office budget in May when Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver proposed a tax increase to shore up declining revenues. Other commissioners were looking to cut the county budget instead and resisted Oliver's plan.

Throughout the discussions, however, the sheriff's office budget was "one gigantic line item" that Norton said no one could explain.

Seeking an adequate explanation, Norton started asking questions. For the next four months, he and a few of his employees spent considerable time and money retrieving and analyzing hundreds of pages of government documents for the report.

He said last week it was a "modest investment" made in the name of improving the community and protecting the taxpayer.

"The Norton Agency believes that it's part of our civic responsibility to be asking questions ... to challenge government to provide explanations and transparency," said Norton. "I don't know that we've been asking enough questions, and I'm encouraging all citizens to ask questions."

One sticking point for Norton is whether the county is making or losing money by boarding jail inmates from other counties.

Cronic says the sheriff's office has generated some $21 million in revenue over three years by renting cell space to other counties who cannot house their own prisoners.

But Norton said the rates the county charges for those inmates — $36 per day per inmate for a county that boards more than 100 inmates at the jail, $45 per inmate for every county boarding fewer than 100 — are too low to account for the liabilities associated with taking on extra prisoners.

Cronic said the rates are market-driven.

He said DeKalb County charges more — cited by Norton as $67 per day — to board inmates because DeKalb isn't in the "boarding business" like Hall County.

"If he had called DeKalb ... they have (no inmates)," Cronic said. "If we set ours at that rate, we would have no inmates, either."

But Norton said the rates Hall charges still don't account for future capital costs he says the county surely will incur for repair and maintenance of the jail facility.

"We're going to wear out that jail," Norton said.

He said the rate for boarding inmates should also account for increased insurance payments the county might face if an inmate from another county injures a county employee or a Hall County inmate.

Norton also urges the sheriff's office to keep detailed reports of court and jail maintenance costs specifically related to out-of-county inmates so the budget oversight committee can "continuously monitor rate of return and risk assessment."

"I'm not convinced that the jail makes money," Norton said.

In other sections of the report, Norton says the county should keep better track of how often special vehicles are used to determine whether they are needed.

Specifically, Norton mentions a meth-containment vehicle that the county purchased in 2007 for $222,222 using grants and seized funds.

Norton has suggested that the sheriff's office sell the vehicle, in addition to a Mobile Command Unit.

"The lack of reporting presents the layman's view that they are glimmering trophies sitting in parking lots and of little use in public safety or protection of officers," said Norton.

While Cronic says there is no specific report detailing the vehicles' use, he said frequency of deployment isn't the point. And he says they aren't trophies.

"It's just been one of those tools, when you need it, you utilize it," Cronic said.

Norton hopes the suggestions made in the report are an eye-opener for residents. He hopes the result are new accounting practices that might save millions of dollars over the next three years.

As taxpayers are squeezed by economic conditions, Cronic says he expects the scrutiny. Still, the sheriff said he has changed the department to meet the demands of a shrinking budget.

"When you look at sheriff's offices, we are one of the most efficient," said Cronic. "Unfortunately, when you're a law enforcement agency, not everybody's going to like you."