Auditors warned the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office about a dysfunctional payroll system six months before an overtime spending crisis erupted this week.
But sheriff’s officials said Tuesday that a series of large-scale investigations — not the problems outlined in the audit — are to blame for overspending that may force a hiring freeze of deputies and detention officers.
Regardless of the cause, the agency has overspent its overtime budget by $1.8 million just four months into the fiscal year. Plans hastily implemented to fix the problem caught the ire of the county Superior Court on Monday and the wrath of inmate families on Saturday.
Sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Paul Chagolla called both incidents the result of “miscommunication.”
On Monday, as many as 46 defendants in 61 criminal cases missed their scheduled court appearances because deputies in charge of moving the inmates were told to skip their overtime shifts.
On Saturday night, staff at the Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix announced a new visitation policy that would have cut inmate visitation days from six to one. Chagolla said the policy change had been discussed but never approved, and he said fliers announcing the policy were posted in error.
Loretta Barkell, the chief financial officer for the sheriff’s office, said Tuesday that the budget problems are “correctable,” considering the overall budget for the agency is $288 million.
“We’ve been down this road before,” Barkell said. “And when we get $1 million over budget, the flags go up.”
Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Lisa Allen said investigations into former County Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling, Cactus Towing and a network of East Valley gambling operations, among others, took huge chunks of the overtime money. “We have to do that work,” she said.
Excessive overtime used to cover a shortage of detention officers was partly to blame for the sheriff’s office going over budget by $3 million in 2001.
That crisis forced Sheriff Joe Arpaio to cut back on inmate meals, close satellite booking centers and cut a deal with a major vendor for a cash advance. But Allen said the office eventually got the spending under control.
Overtime issues were discovered again last fiscal year when the county Internal Auditor reviewed the payroll.
The auditor’s report, released in May, said that overtime increased 658 percent from fiscal years 2002 through 2006 despite the hiring of more staff to work in the jails.
Auditor Ross Tate wrote that overtime generally decreases when more people are hired, but that wasn’t the case with the sheriff’s office.
Auditors found a number of reasons for the problems, including the lack of a plan to reduce overtime. The auditors also found inadequate supervision and ineffective controls of its payroll processes.
Barkell said those payroll problems pertaining to overtime have been corrected.