Rift between sheriff, supervisors comes to the surface
After initially voting to approve an additional $1.9 million allotment to the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office during its March 20 meeting, the Board of Supervisors a couple hours later reconsidered and voted to table final action on the spending decision until April.
This move comes after Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) in early March brought to light the LCSO's approximately $2.7 million budget overrun of its current $73 million budget. The exceeding amount was later estimated to be closer to $2.3 million due to an error on behalf of the county's finance staff. The supervisors $1.9 million in extra allocation was directed for that purpose.
What changed in the short time between the supervisors' initial vote and reconsideration was that several board members read a letter to editor Chapman sent to local news sources and published in Leesburg Today.
While none of the supervisors directly said Chapman writing the letter was the reason for withdrawing the allocation, their comments made clear their discontentment with the sheriff's approach.
Buona, the board's finance committee chairman, was blunt in his criticism of Chapman's leadership. He stated the sheriff was blaming everything except himself.
“The fact is most of these policies have been in effect for years … and the previous sheriff didn't overrun his budget with the same policies,” Buona said March 20. “ … I wish the sheriff had taken personal responsibility for overspending his budget
“When you're a rookie you make mistakes, but missing your budget is no small thing,” Buona told the Times-Mirror in an interview.
When board Chairman Scott York (R-At Large) asked the sheriff to explain why he wrote the letter, the sheriff said he “thought it was important that the county at large understand the complexities involved with the way the budget is designed.”
In the letter, Chapman reiterated his position that overtime pay and personnel staffing are the driving forces behind LCSO's budget excesses. Vacancy savings, a county policy through which departments must leave approved positions vacant for cost-savings, is the key element, Chapman said.
The sheriff explained vacancy savings as under-staffing stemming from the Board of Supervisors approving additional positions yet not allowing the sheriff's office to fill the positions.
“These positions are held hostage,” Chapman wrote in an editorial. “Doing this makes the county appear as though it saved [money] … By forcing the LCSO to incur such a high number of vacancy savings, our workforce becomes understaffed and we must backfill (sic) the positions by paying time and a half overtime – a process that actually costs more than filling the originally allocated, but unfunded positions.”
The additional funds will likely be needed in the weeks ahead, several supervisors agreed, in order to ensure law enforcement officials receive paychecks later in the current fiscal year, which runs through June; but the board wants a deeper look at the financial data on precisely why and how the sheriff has exceeded his budget allotment. County staff is expected to present that information to the supervisors in the weeks ahead.
Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) initiated the reconsideration March 20, noting the disagreement between Chapman and the county's finance staff on budget details.
Buona on March 25 said Chapman's answers and concerns are real, but other departments have been able to adhere to their budget.
Speaking of the sheriff's letter, Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) said it probably wasn't a good strategy to get the results he wanted.
“I think the op-ed was probably not the wisest way to communicate some of these things,” Letourneau said.
Lack of communication was of parallel concern for the supervisors, who wondered why the budget excesses weren't brought to their attention until so late in the fiscal year. According to the board, Chapman was aware his budget was heading for the red as early as November.
"What we don't want is surprises," Buona told the sheriff in early March. "If this would've been brought to our attention a few months ago, we could've maybe put a dent in this gap."