Saying he needs nearly $2 million more for his 2021 budget, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher has taken the Ramsey County Board to court over a funding dispute that includes COVID-related austerity measures the board passed earlier this month.
The board's move, which meant no property tax increase, cut $1,174,795 from the Sheriff's Office 2021 budget. Calling the cuts arbitrary and capricious, Fletcher sent a letter to the board Wednesday to notify them that he had filed in Ramsey District Court a notice of appeal, a legal maneuver available to all Minnesota sheriffs if they feel their budget has been unfairly targeted.
In the letter, Fletcher said he can't afford the county's cut and that he's facing an additional $822,789 of "structural imbalances" that need to be rectified, for a total shortfall of almost $2 million.
"It is my hope that as we prepare for a hearing in a neutral judicial setting that we can agree that this is the appropriate forum for disagreement and that good government is served when both bodies are accountable for their actions," Fletcher wrote.
Ramsey County Board Chair Toni Carter said adjusting the budget to avoid any property tax increase was "hard work for everyone." The county was able to shave $15.7 million from the 2021 budget by cutting department budgets, delaying technology upgrades, drawing from the general fund and taking advantage of lower interest rates. The cuts didn't include any layoffs, furloughs or eliminating positions.
"The sheriff, like all other areas of the county, participated in the reductions necessary to get to a 0% increase," said Carter.
The budget dispute is only the latest between Sheriff Fletcher and the board, with ongoing and unresolved disagreements about Fletcher's spending going back to his first few months in office in early 2019. The County Board early this year approved spending $950,000 from the county's general contingent account to cover cost overruns in Fletcher's 2019 budget, most of it due to payroll costs. Fletcher, through letters from his staff, still disputes that figure, saying structural imbalances and underfunding of personnel costs were to blame.
Signs that the Sheriff's Office and the board were headed for another budget showdown began to appear last month, when Fletcher's office sent a letter to Ramsey County Manager Ryan O'Connor saying the Sheriff would "work in earnest" to meet the board's 2021 budget goals, but that some positions within the Sheriff's Office could not be left vacant as required by the board's proposed budget.
The letter also asked for $1.4 million more in funding to cover shortages caused by what it said were software problems and the anticipated costs of responding to civil unrest surrounding the upcoming trial of four Minneapolis police officers over the death of George Floyd.
The county responded at the time that a software glitch did indeed cause a shortfall of $165,000, but denied the rest of the request. Some of the perceived shortfall was caused by budgeting errors in the Sheriff's Office, and the county already has reserves set aside to cover things like responding to civil unrest, wrote Ramsey County Chief Financial Officer Alex Kotze.
It's not yet clear when a court hearing would be held. Fletcher did not respond to a call seeking comment. Carter said she hasn't been given a court date.
The two sides appear headed for more disagreement: Fletcher said in his letter Wednesday that the county's austerity measures mean he will have to leave 12 positions open. The board, in its description of the cuts to each department, said the sheriff would see a reduction of $744,945 in personnel services, which translates to only 7 full-time positions.
The county added that Fletcher's office added four full-time positions in 2019 for the body-worn cameras program. The cost for the ongoing support and operation of the program is $1,101,808 in 2021.
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329