Over the last three years, millions of dollars generated by COMBAT, the anti-drug and anti-violence sales tax in Jackson County, has been spent with little or no oversight, according to a new audit.
The COMBAT sales tax was approved by voters in 1989, and it has recently generated more than $20 million a year. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker commissioned the audit after she took over the agency in 2018.
"There has been a pattern of COMBAT funds being spent without the approval or knowledge of COMBAT management," the auditors from BKD CPAs & Advisors wrote on the first page of the 32-page report.
The audit turned up millions of dollars over the past decade in surplus COMBAT money. To create a budget, the county must estimate how much sales tax revenue it will collect in a given year.
Some of the tax money automatically goes to the Kansas City Police Department, the Jackson County Prosecutor and the county drug task force. Other funds are distributed as grants to community organizations focused on drugs and crime.
Starting in 2010, COMBAT revenue always came in over the estimate. In 2014 and 2015, under the administration of former executive Mike Sanders, the county underestimated COMBAT revenues by about 14%. Under current executive Frank White, the estimate was also low, peaking at nearly 12% in 2018.
The county spent the extra money on all kinds of things not related to the COMBAT mission of fighting drugs and violent crime, the audit said.
“When you don't have good budgeting practices, you could rely on COMBAT funds to fund things that you should have planned for, but didn't,” said Baker.
For example, the county spent some $2.2 million in COMBAT money fixing cell doors in the downtown Jackson County jail. Even more was spent on a chain-link fence, vans and elevator repair. The audit found COMBAT management was "unaware and did not authorize" those funds to be used on those projects.
Under a county ordinance, the corrections department already gets 15% of the yearly sales tax revenue, the biggest piece of the pie from COMBAT. The money spent on doors and other items was above and beyond the substantial amount of money allocated for corrections.
Also, the audit discovered that the county executive, including both White and Sanders, often approved spending by saying it was "emergency status." This also allowed both executives to bypass county legislative approval.
The audit also uncovered county employees with no apparent connection to the COMBAT mission were being paid, in part, with COMBAT funds. This included White's chief of staff, his director of communication and his assistant. Some of their benefits, including phone and car allowances, also came from COMBAT funds, according to the audit.
“It's taken us a while to untangle all the things that we didn't know about COMBAT,” said Baker.
Money was also used for the Rock Island trail project and construction at the Truman Courthouse in Independence. Funds were even used for a Martin Luther King celebration put on by the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Baker said money that used to go to things like that will now be redirected. “What we intend to do with that money is to address the crime and violence that's occurring in this county right now.”
She also pledged to include the county legislature in future COMBAT funding decisions. “There won't be spending of combat dollars that does not go through the legislative approval process,” Baker told KCUR.
Legislator Crystal Williams was pleased to hear Baker wants to involve lawmakers in the COMBAT process. “There continues to be a clear pattern of hubris and blatant disregard for appropriate process and best practices in the administration,” she told KCUR.
Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway's performance audit of COMBAT is ongoing but there is no information on when it will be completed. Galloway is also auditing the operations and finances of other parts of Jackson County government.