As the county moves into the last month of its budget preparations, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran is hopeful the upward trend his department’s funding has seen over the past four years will continue.
The combined budget for the Sheriff’s Office and the Mobile Metro Jail hit a four-year high at $42,353,300 last year. Of that, $31 million was allotted to personnel and nearly $10 million was allocated for operational expenditures.
This year Cochran and his department are requesting close to $47 million, representing an operational increase of approximately $1.6 million. According to a budget workbook issued by the county’s finance department, the office would see 10 percent increase and the Metro Jail would see a 17 percent increase if the budget was granted as requested.
Despite the requested funding increase, Cochran said he doesn’t “shoot for the moon and hope he’ll get more” when submitting a budget.
“We all see the revenue figures coming in,” he said. “I always try to send something more reasonable, but even when you stay at a level funding, there are a lot of things that are out of your control.”
Cochran said there are increasing costs for employee healthcare, various utilities and housing inmates at the jail. When those things become more expensive, they can eat away at a budget – even if it stays the same on paper.
According to the county’s numbers, the percentage increase requested by the MCSO is on the low end of the county spectrum, but in dollar figures the increase is one of the higher requests.
The $47 million figure also includes a 5 percent pay raise for the department’s employees. Cochran said a pay increase is “top priority” for his department, but the Mobile County Commission has also expressed a desire to address the seven year drought in salary increases on its own.
In previous interviews and in open meetings, Cochran has discussed the difficulty of hiring and retaining deputies because of stagnant wages and poor benefits.
“That’s why our first priority is a pay raise,” he said. “Even if we had the ability to add more (deputies), if we start losing all our experienced officers, a couple of new COs wouldn’t make up for that institutional knowledge.”
Cochran has also voiced his support for merit-based pay increases. He said the county already has such a system in place, but isn’t adhering to it.
“When you don’t give merit raises, the system starts eating itself up,” Cochran said. “When people go seven years without any raise, if I hire someone today, he or she makes the same amount of money as someone who’s been here for over seven years.”
Other than a pay increase, the department’s budget request highlights a need for additional patrol cars, laptops and additional staff members.
“The past year we have averaged 150 fewer inmates per day, and that’s been a huge savings,” Cochran said. “But one of the big things we asked for is an additional 10 corrections officers and supervisors. The jail has not had a personnel increase in 15 or 20 years.”
The personnel gap at the jail is something Cochran said he’s unsuccessfully requested funding for the past two years. In the interim, guards have been required to take on additional duties including transferring inmates and serving as security in the courtroom.
The jail, which was constructed to house a little more than 1,100 inmates, is now holding more than 1,400 – though it has seen up to 1,800 prisoners at a time in recent years.
The sheriff’s department also has access to outside funding sources, which it has used in the past to bridge funding gaps. The most lucrative of those is the income derived from the $20 annual fee attached to pistol permits.
“Pistol permits had gotten to where they would bring in up to $800,000 a year, but that’s changing as we’ve gone into multiple-year permits,” Cochran said. “Now it can bring in more than that one year and then less the next year.”
Another source of “discretionary funding” is the income generated through seized drug money, which is legally required to go through the court system before it’s redistributed back to the department.
According to Cochran, drug forfeitures can average anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 a year for the department, but those numbers are hard to use for budgetary purposes because they aren’t predicable.
“By law, those (monies) are not suppose to supplant funding from the county,” Cochran said. “We’ve built up and expended maybe $2 million of those funds recently, but last year we spent more than we received.”
In an email, MCSO Finance Director Mary Calhoun said those “discretionary funds are audited by the Alabama State Examiners of Public Accounts.”
“The last audit was from May 1, 2010 through April 30, 2012,” the email read. “We are due for another audit any time now.”
Calhoun said she “believes” the Examiners website only has audits performed in the last year, which would explain why Lagniappe’s staff was unable to locate the document. A request for the most recent audit of discretionary funds was made to the department, but as of press time, it had not been received.
The amount of income and details of those funds are also not disclosed to the County Commission.
Cochran said the department’s discretionary funds have been used in the past to pay for equipment like gas masks and SWAT gear and even sustain around seven employees for the department. According to Cochran, 18 new patrol cars and six narcotics vehicles were also purchased with the funds last year.
Most notably, the MSCO used these funds to purchase a $340,000 aircraft used by his office. Funding and support for the aircraft, a Beechcraft Bonanza, is provided by a volunteer organization, the Sheriff’s Aviation Group Inc., a registered nonprofit.
Cochran removed the plane’s tail number from public tracking databases because he says it’s used in active “investigations,” but he also disclosed that around $20,000 of discretionary funding is set aside annually for the operation, fuel, insurance and maintenance of the plane.
“When we first started (The Sheriff’s Aviation Group), we wanted to model it after the flotilla and the mounted unit with an all volunteer staff,” Cochran said. “Then we thought we’d create a nonprofit association for them to operate out of. We created the board and then the board created the foundation in an effort that it may need to raise funds.”
He said the money raised would be used for the operation of the plane, if the operational costs exceeded the amount designated in the office’s discretionary funds.
The board of directors for the Aviation Group consists of Maj. James Burrow, Chief David Wilhelm, volunteer pilot Robert Middleton and Chad Tucker, who was formerly a public relations officer for Cochran.
Middleton was at the controls last month when the plane was damaged in a minor incident at Brookley Aeroplex. According to the FAA, the wing scraped the runway while landing. The MCSO reported that the wing struck a runway sign while taxiing.
The Aviation Group is one of multiple nonprofit organizations tied to the MSCO. The Foundation of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office and The Mobile County Sheriff’s Flotilla of Mobile County Inc. are two others.
The Foundation is funded through tax-exempt donations, the sales of miscellaneous items at MCSO and fundraising events such as the Foundation of the Mobile County Sheriff Golf Tournament, which is in its sixth year.
Requests for 990 filings for the all three nonprofit organizations were not initially granted, but MCSO Public Affairs Officer Lori Myles did disclose some information about last year’s golf tournament.
“Last year was the fifth year for the tournament, and it was the first time (the money) had gone into the Aviation Group,” Myles said. “I think we had about $10,000 sitting in there, and then we raised around $18,000.”
Myles said the money was put into that organization because the IRS had temporarily revoked the nonprofit status of the Foundation after it failed to file on time.
She added the oversight occurred during a transition in the way the IRS notified 501C(3) organizations about renewing their nonprofit status. The change affected several nonprofits across the country including the Sheriff’s Flotilla, which also lost its 501C(3) status temporarily.
Because the Foundation wasn’t a tax-exempt organization from Feb. 18, 2013-July 14, 2014, the money raised during last year’s golf tournament was put into the Sheriff’s Aviation Group. According to Myles, those funds have not and will not be transferred to the Foundation account – though she did say all donors were of aware of where the money was going.
The board of directors of each nonprofit also denied a request for the actual fundraising total at that event.
“The board of the Foundation as well as Aviation Group do not wish to give the total amount made at the tournament,” Myles said in an email. “None of that money was public funds.”
Form 990s for the Sheriff’s nonprofits are not available on public databases.
The board of the Sheriff’s Aviation Group sent this statement when asked about its finances: “The nonprofit board was set up to privately raise funds to help with the operations of the all volunteer program. There is no public funding which goes into the foundation. We have complied with all reporting requirements set forth by federal law.”