PARKERSBURG - Wood County commissioners questioned Sheriff Ken Merritt about his plans to transfer $32,000 from deputies salaries to purchase a new vehicle for his use.
The budget transfer, dated Jan. 23, went to the commission and was signed by commissioners Wayne Dunn and Blair Couch, only two of the three signatures are required. The notice stated Merritt was planning to transfer $32,000 from the law enforcement deputies' salary line item to another line item. The commissioners stamped the invoice approved "only that it meets the requirement that monies are available within the line item and appear to be relevant to the line item drawn from and does not reflect approval of the specific items purchased by the elected official."
On a requisition, dated Jan. 25, from the sheriff's office, it was noted the sheriff intended to purchase a 2013 Ford F-150 crew cab for his own use. The vehicle cost was listed at $27,406 and was being purchased off the state bid contract, according to the requisition.
Photo by Pamela Brust
Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt, accompanied by chief law enforcement deputy Shawn Graham and administrative assistant T.R. Smith, discussed the sheriff’s planned transfer of funds from his department’s law enforcement deputies’ salary line item to equipment for purchase of a new vehicle for Merritt’s use.
After seeing the requisition, the commissioners asked for a meeting with the sheriff.
"It is planned the vehicle currently being used by the sheriff is going back to the Drug Task Force. It was previously their vehicle. That's what I drove when I served on the task force before taking over as chief deputy and we have now sent a second officer back to the task force. We would like to send the vehicle back with that officer," said Shawn Graham, chief law enforcement deputy. "We don't have another vehicle that would be appropriate for that use," he said. Graham explained there are only a certain number of unmarked vehicles in the department fleet that could be used by drug investigators.
Administrative assistant T.R. Smith said the department has 58 vehicles in its fleet.
Commissioner Steve Gainer asked if there were not other vehicles that could be made available for the sheriff's use.
The commissioners asked if the sheriff could use the vehicle Smith or Graham drives.
"The chief needs a vehicle that can go back into the backwoods area and I'm restricted with my leg. I need room to stretch out," Merritt noted.
Graham said the department is also going to be doing drug investigation in the office as well as in conjunction with the Drug Task Force.
Merritt assured the commissioners he had adequate funds in the deputy salary line item to transfer to the equipment line item to cover the cost of the new vehicle.
Sheriff's department officials said there were funds left over from the former chief law enforcement officer's salary for use in other line items.
"In the past, the sheriff has come to us about buying department vehicles," Commissioner Blair Couch said. Traditionally the county has purchased sheriff's department vehicles through coal severance funds. Couch asked Merritt what he would do if there was a need for overtime or some other emergency in his department.
"What about the pending lawsuit you mentioned that may result in you having to hire back another deputy and what if you need funds for that," Commissioner Steve Gainer asked.
"I don't recall discussing anything like that with you," Merritt said.
"I'm worried you may run out of money in your salary line item," Gainer said.
"You could be looking at a potential deficit if something comes up and you don't have enough funds to transfer in, like for overtime that's incurred," Couch said.
"We signed it, but at the time we didn't know what you were doing. It could have been handled in a better way. It kind of takes the wind out of our sails going into a new year with you," Couch said.
"Of course, you never know what's going to happen in law enforcement," Merritt said. "The bottom line is we need a vehicle because we don't have anyone in law enforcement we can trade for, and I have the money available in by budget," the sheriff said. Merritt noted the vehicle he is driving now also has steering and other mechanical problems.
"We just don't want you to come back later asking for more money," commission President Wayne Dunn said.
"I'm not going to do that, but when we need something, we will ask," Merritt said. "I can't say what may happen in the future."
Smith said sheriff's department officials looked at the budget and there were adequate funds to meet the needs.
"We checked before we made the request," Smith said.
"I'll give you my trust and faith at this point, and hope we can work together, but we don't like surprises," Dunn told Merritt.
The agenda for the meeting stated the sheriff's department officials would also bring up holding center personnel needs.
"We aren't prepared to discuss that at this time," Graham said.
"I will tell you we have had at least two incidents just since we've been in office where there were problems, altercations with combative individuals which caused problems having only two officers on duty at a time," Graham told commissioners. "We will be back to discuss the situation soon," he said.