A long-running budget feud between Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and the Ramsey County Board landed in court on Wednesday.
The hearing, held via conference call, came five months after Fletcher first sued the board for what he's called "capricious and arbitrary" budget cuts county commissioners imposed as they took austerity measures last year in response to the pandemic.
"This was a failed policy that did not comply with the law," said attorney Jim Carey, who represented Fletcher at the hearing.
The board's budget cuts were felt across the county and resulted in no property tax increase. For Fletcher, it was a nearly $1.2 million cut from his 2021 budget. Fletcher, who stepped up his criticisms of the board and county staff in recent months, didn't speak during the hearing.
Judge Ronald L. Abrams took the matter under advisement.
Fletcher sued the County Board in December by filing a notice of appeal in Ramsey County District Court, a legal maneuver available to all Minnesota sheriffs if they feel their budget has been unfairly targeted.
He said at the time that he was facing an additional $822,789 of "structural imbalances" that need to be rectified, for a total shortfall of nearly $2 million.
The arguments delivered Wednesday mirrored those made in numerous court filings since Fletcher's lawsuit was first filed.
Attorney Angela Brandt, representing the county, said Fletcher's office was given ample opportunity to work with the county as it began a process last June to recraft its budget in light of the economic uncertainty dealt by the pandemic. At several points in that process, Fletcher and his staff were invited to work with the board, she said.
"It wasn't arbitrary or capricious," Brandt said, pointing to other counties that took similar steps as the pandemic spread. "The fact that Sheriff Fletcher second-guesses the board and believes he should have more money does not carry the day."
The board tried to spread the pain as much as possible when making budget cuts, Brandt said, and opted to avoid a scenario that would have cut even more money from the Sheriff's Office.
Carey said Fletcher's opinion wasn't sought in a meaningful way during the budget process, adding that the sheriff was dismissed from a board meeting.
Brandt said the record showed just the opposite, playing a snippet of audio from the Aug. 25, 2019, board meeting in which Fletcher was invited to take as much time as he wanted.
"Sheriff Fletcher blatantly misrepresents what happened at the meeting," Brandt said.
Carey argued that Fletcher's budget could have been repaired with some of the $96 million in federal CARES Act money the county received, but Brandt countered that it's poor budgeting to take one-time money and add it into a budget.
The county was also restricted in how it could use the money, eventually developing a plan that earmarked millions for rent and mortgage payments, utility subsidies, food assistance and small-business grants, among other aid.
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329