Sheriff attacks zero-based budgeting plan

TONOPAH — Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo Tuesday charged the county commission was violating the separation of powers principle in approving a zero-based budgeting concept requiring closer approval of his spending.

DeMeo said not all the items can be definitely projected in a budget, like deputy overtime, which includes court duty.

“Every time I want to spend money I have to come to a commissioner to justify that expenditure. I don’t have problems justifying the budget. But this morning I was up at 3:00 a.m. receiving phone calls with deputy shortages throughout Nye County,” DeMeo told commissioners.

DeMeo said the sheriff’s department has already been using zero-based budgeting, which means the county looks at items that aren’t needed that year and eliminated. For example, retired Capt. Bill Becht wasn’t replaced. But six dispatchers were laid off that weren’t considered in the budget for the last fiscal year, he said.

County Manager Pam Webster said she wanted to ratify a concept approved during the budget hearing in May. Webster said she’d approve the salaries and benefits, identify costs that needed to go into the budget immediately, then in 30 or 60 days come back before county commissioners and review items for the next two months. The county could hold a reserve for the budget as additional issues arise to augment the sheriff’s budget in two months, she said.

Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the concept. Commissioner Donna Cox cast the sole vote against, saying she was opposed to micro-managing the sheriff’s department.

“I have to operate the sheriff’s office. For me to report to a commissioner in every respect in certain instances could be considered a separation of powers issue,” DeMeo said. “We have to justify everything to them and that is a concept of zero-based budgeting.”

District Attorney Brian Kunzi called the separation of powers argument “an amusing comment.” He said the sheriff is part of the executive branch.

“County commissioners have the power to set the budget and budget constraints for any official in Nye County. That’s something that’s been kind of forgotten in the past,” Kunzi said.

The sheriff can use money for overtime, but should never be given authority to order overtime over the budget amount allocated to him by the county commission, issues they have had to wrestle with in the past few years, the DA said.

“Every time we’ve asked for a budget and we were given the budget we asked for we were not over budget. In fact, I remember some comptroller taking $500,000 from our budget one year actually to balance the people that were out of budget,” DeMeo said. He said the sheriff’s office operated like an ATM machine.

“We had someone in an agency who doesn’t understand anything about public safety disregard our budget request and takes up a budget of their own. That was brought up in the hearing before the AG’s office. Why do you think they didn’t bring up charges?” DeMeo asked.

He was referring to a request by the county commission in November 2012 for the Nevada Attorney General’s Office to consider prosecuting DeMeo for overspending his budget by $1.2 million. The AG declined to prosecute, saying they could find no evidence of intent to exceed the budget.

The sheriff said the county commission was acting like a previous budget meeting he had was for naught and they were now renegotiating the 2014-15 fiscal year budget. The fiscal year began July 1.

“It says here I have to answer to Frank Carbone for expenditures,” DeMeo said, referring to one commissioner. “I don’t have a problem in open meetings saying this is what I have.”

“You want to look at operations of the sheriff’s office, go ahead,” he said.

But DeMeo said he recommended the county manager look at at the sheriff’s office and make suggestions, a recommendation that was never followed.