County footing bill for missing shelter funds

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Someone had to be left holding the bag.

Even as Indiana State Police and the State Board of Accounts continue their investigation into missing funds related to reopening the Putnam County Animal Shelter, the unpaid contractors in question still need to be paid.

On Monday morning, the Putnam County Commissioners reached a consensus, essentially to "do the right thing," proposing a solution to paying the nearly $49,000 in unpaid invoices to four different contractors.

The county and the public will learn more about the investigation in due time, with the findings turned over to the Putnam County prosecutor. Formal charges could follow and potentially a conviction, which could carry with it restitution payments.

"The ISP and SBA investigation will likely provide you with some answers," Putnam County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Phil Parker said. "Whether we recuperate funds from this individual remains to be seen."

For now, though, the bills need to be paid, an opinion on which the commissioners obviously agreed.

"I understand completely how they (the vendors) would want to be paid for work they did in October," Commissioner David Berry said.

The problem first received public attention nearly a month ago, when Sheriff Scott Stockton announced the joint state investigation into irregularities in the animal shelter budget.

At the heart of the problem is money that left the account but was never actually paid to the contractors.

The unnamed person at the center of the investigation was identified by Stockton only as a third party not associated with the Sheriff's Department, the Humane Society of Putnam County or Putnam County government.

Speaking to the commissioners on Monday, Stockton and Parker said little about the investigation, focusing on the matter of the unpaid money.

The vendors, Parker said, "are starting to put a little heat on" about the unpaid bills. In response, the chief deputy went to each one and asked how much was owed in materials and labor.

The sum owed to the four contractors is $48,722.99.

"I felt obligated to at least be the point person to bring this information before the (commissioners)," Parker said.

He laid any further decisions at the commissioners' feet.

"What we do going forward is above my pay grade."

While the exact mechanism for repayment was the subject of extensive discussion, the commissioners' reaction was immediate.

Hindering any quick and easy solution was Auditor Lorie Hallett's report that the fund from which these bills should have been paid was more than $8,000 in the red.

Additionally, Hallett held in her hand another $4,945.38 in current bills for the animal shelter.

By mid-month, the quarterly contribution of the Humane Society plus county draws will add $37,000 to the fund, but that still falls short of the delinquent payments.

Additionally, the shelter building is all but ready for operation, but the county still needs to purchase medicine and other supplies in order to open.

"Construction-wise, we're ready to go. But we don't have any of the medicines," Parker said.

"I guess we need to figure out what choices we have," Commissioner Rick Woodall said. "I want to see that everybody gets paid."

The two choices that quickly emerged were paying from the Economic Development Income Tax (EDIT) War Chest or from the county's Rainy Day Fund.

The War Chest seemed to be the preference throughout the conversation, possibly because the commissioners have more discretion over EDIT funds than any other county funds, which the county council controls.

A discussion of substantiating the amounts submitted by the vendors also came to a quick end.

"I don't know how we verify these amounts," County Attorney Jim Ensley said.

"I don't think we do," Woodall replied. "I think we're at the point of, 'whatever you say we owe you is what we owe you.'"

Commissioner Don Walton agreed, simply saying, "The bills need to be paid."

With $110,856.87 available in the War Chest, the commissioners approved having Hallett advertise an additional appropriation of $55,000 to cover the delinquent and current animal shelter bills.

Although the commissioners control the EDIT fund, the appropriation is still subject to council approval at its Tuesday, March 17 meeting. Monday's quick approval made timely advertisement possible, in the hopes that the vendors will be paid before the end of March.

In introducing the issue, Stockton told the commissioners that Parker "has been working tirelessly with members of the Humane Society to get the shelter operational."

The fruits of those efforts include a new agreement between the county and the Humane Society, one that does a better job of pooling the funds of the two entities.

Additionally, a lack of clarity about duties and chain of command have been addressed, the sorts of issues that could have contributed to the problem at hand.

Questions about who was in charge of expenditures and who authorized the work being done do not have clear answers.

"There appeared to be a lot of confusion about who was in charge of that project," Parker said.

With the new agreement in place and the bills closer to being paid, officials remain hopeful they will be reopening the shelter soon.

There are simply a few more hurdles to overcome in the meantime.

"Had this other issue not occurred, we'd be in really good waters. But we're not," Parker said.

For details on other events of the Putnam County Commissioners meeting, read more HERE.

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