This week’s decision by the Ogle County Board to exert more control over the Administrative Tow Fund was absolutely correct.
The tow fund was established in the fall of 2011, in the first year of Sheriff Michael Harn’s term. A county ordinance established a new $350 fee to be assessed against all drivers who had to have their vehicles towed at the behest of the sheriff’s department.
Public documents obtained by Sauk Valley Media through a Freedom of Information Act request showed the Administrative Tow Fund collected $210,400 between October 2011 and November 2013, and had withdrawals of $158,132. Records also showed revenue sources besides the tow fee.
The tow fund ordinance gave Sheriff Harn discretion over how that money was spent – a decision that the Ogle County Board apparently lived to regret.
Harn spent $22,947 of tow fund money to buy a 2013 Dodge pickup truck and $5,437 for “foldable frisbees” and other handout items.
He paid $4,000 in tow fund money to Bob Coine to run the department’s Facebook page, $700 for a tent for the fair, and $170 for flowers for Secretaries Day.
Harn also decided to spend tow fund money to buy print ads last month in Ogle County Life and the Rochelle News Leader, at $1,008 each, to tout the fact that his department had returned a combined $1.3 million to the county by being under budget the previous 2 years. Harn is a candidate for re-nomination in the March 18 Republican primary, and he has two opponents.
By creating a fund that was off budget and had little oversight, the Ogle County Board asked for trouble.
Had Harn’s tow fund expenditures occurred in a vacuum, perhaps board members would have felt differently about them. However, he also used the sheriff’s department credit card to pay for thousands of dollars of “training” meals at local restaurants. He made personal purchases on the county credit card and reimbursed them directly to the credit card company.
Taken together, the questions about Harn’s spending decisions prompted an appropriate response.
By a 22-1 vote, the board limited tow fund expenditures to “the purchase, repair, or maintenance of police vehicles, vehicle equipment, or fuel.”
Purchases of vehicles must have the advice and consent of the board.
And, a board committee will review monthly reports on tow fund spending.
Before the vote, the board eliminated the sheriff’s control over spending decisions by removing wording that would have allowed the sheriff to continue spending money at his discretion. The vote on that amendment was close: 12-11.
Bruce McKinney, a board member from Rochelle, proposed the amendment, stating, “It needs to be back under the control of the county board and county treasurer.”
That is the key to the entire problem regarding the tow fund – a lack of accountability over how this new revenue stream was spent.
Stories by Sauk Valley Media and our sister Ogle County Newspapers publications shed light on the administrative tow fund and raised questions. Pressure by the public helped prompt remedial action by the county board.
Now, the tow fund will be operated in a more professional manner.
With greater accountability should come wiser decisions on how that money is spent.
And that’s the way it should be.
After all, it’s the pubic’s money.