Joe Arpaio's Balloon Payments

Hitmen hurriedly stabbed Jaime Sanchez four times, then dashed for anonymity among the other inmates on the sixth floor of Madison Street Jail.

Then Sanchez waited, and waited, and waited some more. Twelve minutes later, detention officers were finally able to secure the scene.

As is increasingly common, the jail was critically short of staff that early Monday morning in late February. Throughout the facility, detention officers were alone in control towers that were designed to be staffed by three people. They can't leave the towers unmanned, so other officers had to be found -- several floors down -- to respond to the emergency.

Luckily for Sanchez, the attack was sloppy work, a rush job. Under smears of blood, the wounds on the presumed gang snitch were shallow and misplaced.

Next time, Madison detention officers say, attackers -- now wise to the slow response time caused by understaffing -- will know to stick around and finish the job.

The jail is critically short of staff, detention officers say, because of years of mismanagement and neglect of vital jail services by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a few of his top administrators.

Throughout the Sheriff's Office, core services have been eroding quietly for years, numerous current and past employees say. But that erosion was always masked by the sheriff's incessant planting of colorful new programs.

In the last two months, though, this slow erosion has turned into a mudslide.

At the beginning of 2001, the sheriff was somewhere between $6 million and $10 million over budget, depending on whose accounting figures are used.

He began slashing already floundering departments to try to wipe away the overrun by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

That's a crucial benchmark for the sheriff. If he can't erase the deficit, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has said it may place his department on a line-item budget, a Draconian accounting process that would be costly and time-consuming for both the Sheriff's Office and Maricopa County. (In the past, once the Sheriff's Office received its county money, it did not have to report details of its spending to the county board.)

He's not going to make it. Even with recent cuts, Arpaio is on target to be about $2.5 million over. That money will come from the county's contingency fund.

If he can't make it to zero, some contend, Arpaio and his top chiefs could be held personally liable under an Arizona statute that prohibits elected officials from knowingly misappropriating earmarked public funds and overspending budgets. (The relevant statute, however, is fraught with loopholes and concerned primarily with administrators pocketing public money. New Times saw no evidence that Arpaio or his top staffers pilfered public coffers for personal financial gain.)

New Times reviewed hundreds of Sheriff's Office and county financial records, many of which were provided by current sheriff's employees. Accountants familiar with the Sheriff's Office and county budgets helped analyze the records and sort through the convoluted maze the sheriff's budget has become in recent years.

New Times interviewed sheriff's employees and inmates, as well as former employees and current Maricopa County staffers familiar with the sheriff's financial situation and daily operations.

Arpaio did not return calls. Sheriff's Office officials refused a request two weeks ago to discuss budget issues in depth. However, Lisa Allen, the office's public information officer, did call shortly before press time to address broader budget issues. Two county supervisors, Fulton Brock and Jan Brewer, did not return calls.

New Times' analysis shows severe cutbacks are putting detention officers and inmates at risk, increasing response times in outlying regions of the county, drastically curtailing the department's ability to serve warrants or transport inmates, and pushing hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses and duties onto other law enforcement agencies in the Valley.

Many of the cutbacks, such as giving inmates two meals instead of three meals a day, clearly place the department on perilous legal ground. Already, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is exploring a possible lawsuit.

Moreover, the new feeding schedule and other cost-saving or money-generating schemes are actually saving little, if any, and may cost the taxpayers much more due to the potential lawsuits they promote. And the new schemes are clearly crippling other jail services, particularly work furlough and rehabilitation programs, services critical to reducing the number of inmates who return to jail later as repeat offenders.

(That said, one of the new schemes, selling coffee and soda to inmates from a Starbucks-like cart, has brought in $15,000 in less than a month.)

Over the past four years, Arpaio has spent several million dollars on publicity stunts and extravagant perks for sycophants. At the same time, he continued to spend millions propping up ineffective programs that cost far more than he claimed.

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Robert Nelson