With a gesture of peace and a contrite message of promised reform, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher told the County Board on Tuesday that he will meet his 2020 budget.
Fletcher spoke moments before the board unanimously agreed to move $950,000 from its general contingent account to cover the Sheriff’s Office’s 2019 budget deficit.
Perhaps anticipating a dressing down, Fletcher brought with him a replica of the “Vision of Peace” statue that looms over visitors to the St. Paul City Hall-Ramsey County Courthouse building, telling the board that the miniature replica was a gift years ago from Commissioners Victoria Reinhardt and Rafael Ortega.
Holding it Tuesday morning, Fletcher said he wanted to find out if the peace symbolized by the statue “actually works.”
Fletcher and Ramsey County finance officials have quarreled for months over his department’s spending in 2019, the first year of Fletcher’s latest term as sheriff. Ramsey County Manager Ryan O’Connor warned Fletcher last fall that payroll costs threatened to shoot a $2.5 million hole in the sheriff’s $60.38 million budget.
Fletcher insisted that he had inherited the problem from his predecessor, Jack Serier, who he defeated for sheriff in 2018. Fletcher and county officials have never publicly agreed on the deficit’s cause.
In a memo released last week, O’Connor said that Fletcher’s office had failed to correct cost overruns and instead filled vacant positions to advance new areas of work the board had not authorized. No other county department needed the board’s help this year to cover a deficit, the memo said.
Speaking at Tuesday’s board meeting, O’Connor said that he and Fletcher met last week and that the sheriff had committed to ending this year on budget.
Fletcher then addressed the County Board, saying that Lee Mehrkens, the county’s chief financial officer, had told him that “it probably doesn’t do any good to argue the detail” behind the deficit. Fletcher added that he’s cut department staffing by 38 fulltime positions through attrition.
Fletcher battled with county managers last summer and fall over his payroll expenses. Board Chairman Jim McDonough and others accused the sheriff of hiring too many people and ignoring the board’s cost concerns.
Commissioner Nicole Joy Frethem, who represents northern Ramsey County cities, said she’s heard concern from Vadnais Heights officials that the Sheriff’s Office might increase the cost of services to the cities it patrols in order to cover expenses. She urged Fletcher to keep his department’s costs in line.