On Oct. 19, 2011, the Ogle County Board created a new revenue source. It funneled that money to a new Administrative Tow Fund, and granted control over the spending of that money to Sheriff Michael Harn.
Last week, a County Board member, Richard Petrizzo, called for a forensic audit of the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department expenditures, including but not limited to the aforementioned tow fund.
That fund takes in $350 fees from motorists whose vehicles must be towed, such as those involved in DUI arrests. The sheriff has discretion over the spending of the new revenue stream, which amounts to thousands of dollars.
Petrizzo told the County Board that recent publicity over sheriff’s department spending merits an audit.
The publicity over the Ogle sheriff’s spending came mainly from Sauk Valley Media’s reporting on Harn’s spending decisions. One of the stories was titled “Off the budget, little oversight; Sheriff’s fund used for wide range of expenses.”
Regarding the tow fund, expenditures included $22,947 to buy a 2013 Dodge pickup truck, $5,437 for “foldable frisbees” and other handout items, $4,000 to Bob Coine to run the department’s Facebook page, $700 for a tent for the fair, and $170 for flowers for Secretaries Day.
The department’s credit card was used to pay for thousands of dollars in “training” meals at local restaurants.
Harn also made personal purchases on the county card and reimbursed them directly to the credit card company.
In addition, Petrizzo wants the department’s use of county travel and per diem allowances scrutinized by auditors.
Kim Gouker, chairman of the Ogle County Board, turned down Petrizzo’s request for an immediate vote on the audit.
We agree that Gouker made the right decision.
Petrizzo’s request did not appear on the board’s agenda as an action item. Thus, according to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, it did not merit a vote at last week’s board meeting.
But, we believe the call for an audit certainly should be placed on the agenda for the February meeting of the Ogle County Board. The board should approve the request, and the auditors should get to work promptly.
In December, Gouker told an SVM reporter that the tow fund “will be audited,” that it had been audited the previous year, and that he favored “a different kind of oversight” than had previously been utilized.
Those comments came before Harn’s decision to use tow fund money to buy large ads to promote his department’s return of a combined $1.3 million in unspent money over the past 2 years. The ads ran in January, 2 months before Harn faces voters in the March 18 Republican primary, where he has two opponents.
Harn rejects any criticism that the timing of those ads may benefit him in the primary. We have our doubts.
The key issue regarding off-the-budget funds, such as the administrative tow fund, is the lack of oversight by the Ogle County Board – the elected body whose job it is to approve county spending.
If nothing else, an audit of the tow fund will give board members basic information on revenue, expenses, and just how well the relatively new fund, which they created, is operating.
Perhaps it is working fine. Perhaps not.
Board members and taxpayers need to know. An audit will tell them.