Commissioners at odds over OCSO vehicles

Published 11:07 am Wednesday, October 28, 2015

COUNTY — Commissioner Precinct Three John Banken asked the court to take action concerning the Orange County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) patrol car fleet for the remainder of the 2015/2016 fiscal year.

The fiscal year began Oct. 1, 2015.

“The cars are not for the sheriff,” Banken said during court Tuesday afternoon. “They are for the citizens.”

County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton said there was only $5,000 available in the county’s contingency capital outlay budget.

The estimated cost for a single vehicle is $35,875.

A suggestion by the judge that other funds were available to the department brought more discussion to the recently approved county budget.

“The vehicle were included in the budget and then cut out. We are restricted by DOJ funds,” Sheriff Keith Merritt said. “I cannot maintain a level of service when we have gotten 10 cars in four years.”

Merritt also said four cars were currently out of commission at the time due to broken camshafts. To repair the vehicles could cost a minimum of $1,800 each.

“We are out of repair money,” Merritt said. “We have an obligation to not just the safety of our deputies but also to our citizens.”

While transporting a prisoner in Brenham recently, an OCSO support vehicle broke down.

“It is a nightmare to get another jail to house our prisoner because our vehicle broke down,” Merritt said. “You need to prioritize what is most important, law enforcement, or repairing a road or a voting machine. You are preventing me from doing my job that I was elected to do.”

The funds in county’s contingency capital outlay have purchased a chipper for Road and Bridge and a voting machine for the Elections Department.

“What about with the $1.7 million is gone? Then what?” Merritt asked.

The restricted funds are drug forfeiture funds. Use of such funds are restricted and regulated by the Department of Justice.

“Perhaps a zero balance budget was not for this year,” Merritt said.

Chief Deputy Clint Hodgkinson said the department is in crisis with the current vehicles.

“We had a meeting on a Friday and someone, I don’t know who, started taking a lot out of the budget,” Commissioner John Banken said. “Not all of the court did not agree with. I had no say so.”

Merritt said he wish he had been given the courtesy to be informed, as an elected official, to the changes.

“I used a $1million of the funds to purchase software the department needed,” Merritt said. “I knew the county could not afford it.”

Merritt said the restricted funds were to be used for items, which were not included in the budget such as the 10 vehicles included in the preliminary budget.

“We have to give them the money,” Banken said. “I did not know the budget was butchered as bad as it was.”

“You voted for something you were not aware of?” Carlton asked. “The sheriff has the ability to take care of this. He says the officers are his number one priority.”

Merritt said he recently purchased new tazers for the department.

“The old ones were outdated and no longer able to be repaired,” Merritt said. “My officers safety comes before everything else.”

Merritt also said he was concerned for citizens in a 9-1-1 situation and an officer unable to reach them because the vehicle broke down while in route.