Joe Arpaio's Balloon Payments

It hasn't been cheap keeping the Joe Show aloft. Now, his employees, his inmates and the citizens of Maricopa County are paying the price.

To a smaller degree, the sheriff's budget is over its limit because Arpaio has had to pay overtime to cover staffing shortfalls. However, much of that overtime budget was spent on nonessential assignments, the analysis shows. And in several cases, hundreds of hours of overtime were being paid to favored deputies and supervisors for work that, it appears, was never done or was far outside the duties of the Sheriff's Office.

To be fair, some of the money diverted in recent years was spent on equipment and services that have improved the efficiency of the department and the safety of its deputies (although rarely its jail detention officers). Even some of Arpaio's harshest critics agree that some of the spending by his department was aimed at updating the Sheriff's Office with equipment standard in most of America's law enforcement agencies.

And Allen had a much different take on what appears to be gratuitous spending in the Sheriff's Office.

Chris Gerberry, president of the Maricopa County Deputies Association, worries that recent cutbacks are putting Arpaio's employees in grave danger.
Paolo Vescia
Chris Gerberry, president of the Maricopa County Deputies Association, worries that recent cutbacks are putting Arpaio's employees in grave danger.
The specter of major riots hangs over Tent City since Arpaio made further cuts to inmate living conditions.
Paolo Vescia
The specter of major riots hangs over Tent City since Arpaio made further cuts to inmate living conditions.

According to Allen, the sheriff went over budget paying for overtime. And the office had to pay overtime because it is short-staffed, and it is short-staffed because county supervisors had driven Sheriff's Office employees to quit by not approving proper pay raises.

Indeed, she says, it's the board's unrealistically small allocations, not Arpaio's overspending, that have caused the problems.

"They don't fully understand what it takes to run a jail," she says.

Arpaio's serious financial problems apparently began three or four years ago, around the time Glenn Christenson, a longtime county employee, became the financial officer for the Sheriff's Office.

Upon Christenson's arrival, Arpaio began going over budget by at least a million dollars each year, according to records and interviews.

Sheriff's insiders say Christenson, Arpaio and chief deputy David Hendershott made a dangerous spending trio. Arpaio provided the grand dreams, Hendershott provided the schemes to make those dreams reality, and Christenson found the money to pay for it all.

Money was diverted to new gizmos and new programs from accounts outside the purview of county officials. Money was bounced back and forth between accounts to give the illusion of balanced books. As pots of money ran dry, unpaid bills were pushed into the next fiscal year, and payments were taken for future services and used to cover present shortfalls.

It's the old accounting trick of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Lots of county departments used to do it. It's a big reason the county ended up $90 million over budget in the early 1990s.

As other county agencies shaped up their books in the '90s, though, the Sheriff's Office became increasingly autonomous and unaccountable.

In the next fiscal year, all county offices will be under an aggressive new management and accounting model designed to reduce duplicative services and increase accountability to taxpayers.

And the Sheriff's Office will have to follow it in the next budget year.

Late last year, the sheriff and his top staff apparently realized that they would no longer be able to shift and shuffle the department's budget with no real oversight. They would soon have to provide precise accounting to county officials and the public of all money spent. At the same time, county supervisors were threatening to take over the sheriff's finances and conduct a detailed audit.

In November, soon after Arpaio was elected to his third term, he and his top staff made a profound turnaround. All of a sudden, under pressure from auditors, they admitted they were broke, hired a new financial officer with stellar county credentials and, beginning in February, began slashing expenses.

Allen says the change came when county administrators approached Arpaio about Christenson's accounting practices.

"The minute we saw what was going on, we made the change," Allen says. "We assumed Glenn knew what he was doing. But it was clear he wasn't smart about everything."

While county officials are publicly praising Arpaio and his top staff, many privately wonder about the impetus for the contrition and how long his newfound civility might last.

By some accounts, Arpaio has made a sort of plea agreement. Arpaio doesn't want his budget run by county supervisors. Nor do supervisors want the tedious and expensive task of running his budget.

The sheriff will cooperate with accountants, give up some unnecessary and expensive equipment, and make a concerted effort to balance his budget. In return, he would appear to be banking that supervisors won't take over his budget or press him on the potentially thorny legal issues of juggling public money and overspending his agency's appropriation. By fall, officials expect that the Sheriff's Office will be back on a fiscally sound track and the longtime fight between the Sheriff's Office and county officials will be over.

This would be a win-win for county elected officials, county financial officers and the sheriff's command staff.

But, at least in the short run, it's a losing proposition for sheriff's employees, inmates and the citizens of Maricopa County.

Some of Arpaio's employees and critics would like to see punishment doled out to those who caused the problem. In their view, county officials should bail out the sheriff to maintain critical services, then hold him and certain members of his command staff personally culpable for the lost millions.

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