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Balancing budget big part of being Ogle County sheriff

Published: Monday, March 17, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

Managing a budget might have nothing to do directly with catching bad guys, but it’s still a major part of a sheriff’s duties. Voters in Tuesday’s primary would do well to consider a candidate’s skill and experience managing money.

Incumbent Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn, 52, has been in office 3 years; as sheriff, he supervises 84 employees and oversees three budgets: the Sheriff’s Department, Corrections, and Buildings & Grounds. This year, budgeted expenditures for the three total close to $7 million.

“It’s extremely important that we’re fiscally responsible. I’m the person who can do that,” Harn said in October 2009, when announcing his candidacy. He took office Dec. 1, 2010.

As chief of police of the Rock Valley College Police Department for the last 17 years, challenger Joe Drought, 50, also has plenty of budgeting experience.

“I’ve gained an awful lot of experience with running a police department at Rock Valley, with developing and managing budgets in an appropriate manner,” Drought said.

The other GOP candidate, 37-year-old Rochelle Police officer Brian VanVickle, comes from a private sector business background; his family owns an auto dealership.

Harn, who cites among his major accomplishments his ability to run his department efficiently despite being underfunded, has come under fire recently over his use of the sheriff’s department tow fund, revenues for which are supposed to come from the administrative fees charged to people when their vehicles are towed. The fund was established in 2011; the fee is $350 per incident.

About $70,000 – nearly a third of the $210,000 deposited into the tow fund account – came from other sources, however, and expenditures have included purchasing a new vehicle, flowers for Secretaries Day, a tent at the county fair, and $4,000 to manage the department’s Facebook page.

Harn also has been criticized for the department’s credit card use, which included paying for thousands of dollars in “training” meals at local restaurants, alterations to credit card bills, and personal purchases on county cards reimbursed directly to the credit card company.

The wide variety in tow fund expenditures, according to the original language of the ordinance governing its use, was allowed because the funds could be used “at the discretion of the sheriff for law enforcement related activities including the purchase or maintenance of police vehicles equipment or training.”

After the exact nature of some of the expenses came to light, the county board amended the ordinance to tighten its control over how the money is spent, eliminating the sheriff’s control over spending decisions.

In addition, Ogle County Board member Richard Petrizzo has called for a forensic audit of spending by the sheriff’s department.

“It’s obvious that the board left this thing too open,” Chairman Kim Gouker said. “It’s not that the sheriff did anything wrong.”

Harn blames the timing of the brouhaha, which arose in December, on VanVickle, Drought and their supporters.

He said the board’s revision of the ordinance came at his request that members “better define the guidelines for the tow fund due to the recent uproar initiated during a campaign cycle by both of my opponents.”

Harn describes himself as “a true fiscal conservative.”

He touts his cost-cutting measures as one of his biggest accomplishments as sheriff, noting that he is operating on a budget rolled back to near-2007 levels and that he has spent $1.3 million less than he was budgeted over the last 3 years – without laying off a single worker.

According to the county treasurer’s office, in the past 2 years, Harn has left unspent more than $1 million – $766,000 in his budget last fiscal year and $572,000 the previous year.

Last fiscal year, the county board allocated $6.7 million for Harn’s departments, and he spent $5.8 million. The year before, $6.4 million was budgeted, with $5.8 million spent.

In the 2013 budget, the unspent money included $350,000 for repairs and maintenance of buildings, including redoing the heating and cooling system for a county building.

Still, “our buildings and grounds have never looked better, with the beautification we have accomplished, and we’ve done this for less money than the previous sheriff spent,” Harn said.

Board member Ron Colson agrees that Harn has saved the county some money, although maybe not as much as he is claiming, since a lot of it simply has come from putting off projects such as tuck-pointing at the courthouse and HVAC work at the judicial center.

“There’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors there,” Colson said, noting that eventually, the money will be spent, not saved.

He’s also not happy with Harn’s handling of the tow fund. Given the wording of the ordinance, none of Harn’s actions were illegal, but he should have known better, Colson said.

There was “enough stupid and enough unethical to go around,” he said.

In a guest editorial for Sauk Valley Media, Harn also noted that over his tenure, he has “cut an unfunded liability of approximately $950,000 from comp time and vacation time ... to approximately $230,000 today.”

Gouker noted that Harn also has saved money for the county by working to get favorable contracts for natural gas and electricity for county buildings and by having patrol cars fill up at county-owned gas pumps.

As RVC’s chief of police, Drought develops and manages budgets; negotiates union contracts; directs daily patrol operations; manages and directs criminal investigations; develops and implements emergency preparedness plans; works cooperatively with a board of trustees; all while managing a staff of 25 in a 24-7 police operation.

Because of that, he’s got plenty of budgeting experience under his belt, and he, too, is used to “doing more with less.”

He said he finds Harn’s use of the tow fund and county credit card unacceptable.

“The credit card expenses were out of control,” Drought said, adding that “you shouldn’t have to have a policy to say that’s wrong or not allowed; that’s common sense.”

In any event, the state constitution requires that all funds collected by the sheriff’s office be deposited with the county treasurer, a practice he said he will employ immediately.

He’s also not impressed with the budget savings Harn is claiming.

“If he’s turning back money to the county board, I think that’s improper. If you can turn back over $700,000 in a year, you didn’t do what you said you were going to do,” Drought said. “He’s not using the overtime budget, which is there for when deputies are taking vacation, personal or sick time. I see that as mismanagement in many respects.

“I’m not saying you have to spend every dime in the budget every year, but you should be on track with what you said you were going to do during the year.”

VanVickle’s administrative qualifications include a degree in business, and a soon-to-be-obtained second degree in public administration, with a minor in emergency management.

He cites 13 years of management experience in the private sector, with his family’s business, Krahenbuhl Chrysler Jeep, where his responsibilities included budgeting, inventory controls, scheduling, personnel and training.

He’s also a member of the Rochelle High School Board of Education, where he helps oversee a budget of more than $14 million.

He said Harn’s handling of “discretionary” expenditures “is of significant concern to me, and to the taxpayers in general.”

“I do not believe the taxpayers are being served in an efficient and effective manner by spending our tax dollars on ‘business’ lunches ... with the limited resources the county has, I believe the focus should be using those resources to provide better safety for our citizens,” VanVickle said.

He said he plans “to apply principles any business would use to stay in business ... I will also bring a level of transparency to the office not provided by the current administration.”

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