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Court Says Clay County Commission 'Knowingly Underfunded' The Sheriff's Budget

Aviva Okeson-Haberman
KCUR 89.3
An appeals court sided with the Clay County Sheriff's office Thursday, ruling that the county commission can't deliberately underfund jail contracts for health care and food.

The Clay County government deliberately underfunded jail contracts for food and health care for the county’s inmates, according to Thursday’s ruling by the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals. 

The three-panel court sided with a trial court’s decision in a case where the facts were largely undisputed. Clay County is supposed to pay the sheriff’s office about $1 million, though it has the ability to appeal again.

In 2017, the sheriff’s office investigated Laurie Portwood, the county’s chief budget officer and assistant county administrator, for record tampering. Under an agreement with the attorney general’s office, Portwood had to complete community service and promise not to tamper with county documents in exchange for not being prosecuted for two years, according to the Kansas City Star

For the fiscal year 2019 budget, Portwood provided about 60% less funding for the jail than it had in previous years, a cut that two of the three county commissioners voted for. Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte voted against it and had separate legal counsel.

“The county knowingly underfunded the sheriff’s office, and it did so in a manner calculated to make it impossible for the sheriff to carry out his lawful duties,” the ruling said, adding that the county “stubbornly refused to take any action to remedy the problem absent litigation.”

In the appeals court, the commission’s lawyer, Lowell Pearson, arguedthe county is not obligated to fully fund those contracts and that elected officials have the right to make budgetary decisions. 

The judges disagreed, taking the county to task for initially making an argument that the sheriff needed to go to the commission and request more funding. Days later, the judges wrote, the commission refused to consider funding increases due to ongoing litigation. 

Fritz Riesmeyer, a lawyer for the sheriff’s office, said Thursday that, “based on past conduct,” the county might appeal the decision. 

A county spokeswoman declined to say whether there’d be an appeal, and an unsigned statement from the county said it was “reviewing the decision.” 

The county is still being audited by the state of Missouri. State Auditor Nicole Galloway asked Clay County Circuit Court on Wednesday to enforce a subpoena for closed meeting notes and testimony from a top Clay County official. 

“Until today, the auditor has never had to enforce a subpoena of an auditee,” the filing said. “But the county's actions are unprecedented.” 

Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson

Aviva Okeson-Haberman was the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3.
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