BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Close to $1 million collected from inmates at the Erie County Holding Center is used at Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard's sole discretion. The money comes exclusively from money paid by prisoners to make phone calls.
Republican Sheriff Howard explained further, "It's money - profits from the inmates - used to not burden the taxpayer with a similar expense."
But the Former Erie County Comptroller, Democrat David Shenk, calls the money the "closest thing to a legalized slush fund that there is."
According to a recent audit conducted by the Erie County Comptroller's Office, the fund is worth more than $700,000. The sheriff's office receives a "47% commission on inmate calls" as part of a contract with Public Communication Services. There is "a minimum annual guarantee of $500,000."
Only the sheriff has access to the funds which causes Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz distress.
"We saw this starting last year," Poloncarz said, "when there were purchases made by the sheriff's office that we weren't really too keen on."
Last year, according to the Comptroller's audit, $490,000 from this fund was spent on "prisoner transport vehicles." Another $271,000 was spent to purchase six Chevy Tahoes, which are used by three sheriff's deputies as patrol vehicles. At least two dog handlers use the vehicles as well.
Around $140,000 was spent on "office furniture", while only $50,000 was spent on inmate programs.
When asked by News 4's Ed Drantch if the funds were used improperly Sheriff Howard responded emphatically, "No."
According to a response to the audit issued by Sheriff Howard, new patrol vehicles were a necessity. The response calls the old fleet of vehicles "unsafe" and "in bad condition" and says that some of the vehicles had more than 200,000 miles.
As for the furniture, the sheriff was planning to move his administrative offices elsewhere. It was part of an agreement under the Collins administration. Sheriff Howard purchased new furniture, rather than moving the "outdated...furniture" he already had.
But Poloncarz, a democrat, called that a "paper move only", suggesting that move would never happen. The sheriff, in his response, said it was too late to return the furniture.
Legally, the sheriff can use the money however he wants. There are no guideline as to how the funds should be spent. "If the sheriff wanted to buy an aircraft, he could buy an aircraft," Poloncarz said.
Sheriff Howard argues there's not enough money in his general fund budget to spend on things he needs. This unregulated telephone fund was being used as his "Plan B."
Poloncarz laughed at the very notion, saying, "Well, the sheriff for many years has been saying there's not enough money to spend. I think every department head agrees that they wish they had more money to spend, but you got to spend within the allotment that you receive."
The county executive is calling for more transparency into how this money is spent. Poloncarz told News 4 that Sheriff Howard has agreed to hand the money over to Erie County, so legislators are aware of how it's being spent. But there are still no specific guidelines for what the money should be spent on.
When asked why Legislature would reject a proposal to withdraw money if there's no real regulation as to how it can be spent, Poloncarz said it's the Legislature's decision and adds "another oversight level."
On top of the agreement already reached between the county executive and sheriff, a resolution is now working its way through the Legislature that would mandate how the money is actually spent.
Legislators Tim Hogues and Betty Jean Grant are putting forth a resolution that not only directs the sheriff to hand the money over, but would also regulate how the money is spent.
According to the resolution the fund allow 40% for inmate rehabilitation and educational programs and the remaining 60% for other purposes approved by the County Legislature.
"When you focus on safety and well-being and treating individuals properly, then you take it from the other side and don't have as many lawsuits and issues going on in the facilities, so there needs to be that focus," said Hogues.
Through an official request, News 4 obtained a letter sent to David Shenk from Thomas Beilein, the Chairman of the State Commission of Corrections. In it, Beilein writes: "[the commission] does not contemplate statewide regulatory changes... at this time" rather "enactment of a local law or... resolution" is the only way things will change.
"In that resolution, I'm still saying the funds should still be spent in the jail management division but there needs to be some sort of checks and balances," Hogues said.
While Poloncarz notes Sheriff Howard did nothing wrong in spending hundreds of thousands on replacement office furniture and replacement vehicles, he says the days of making unregulated purchases are over.
The resolution was tabled, Thursday morning, meaning it's still being discussed.
News 4 has asked the current comptroller - republican Stefan Mychajliw - to comment on the audit several times, but he has not responded.
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