Recently, I totted up all the recent scandals involving Vermont’s county sheriffs and asked whether we could do without that archaic institution.
Well, now I’ve dipped a toe into sheriff’s department finances, and this whole thing is a lot weirder than I realized. Not necessarily corrupt, but curious, inconsistent, poorly conceived, and sometimes mismanaged.
This is going to take a while, so I’ll summarize the key points up top.
Sheriffs are effectively proprietors of sizable small businesses. They have to be entrepreneurial to keep the lights on because state funding accounts for only a fraction of their expenses. The sheriffs make up the rest by selling their department’s services to anyone who needs policing or security. Sheriffs often handle policing for small communities — for a price. They also work for road contractors, public events, school districts, and other entities both public and private. (The Rutland County Sheriff collected close to $60,000 from the Diamond Run Mall.)
By law, sheriffs are entitled to a 5% cut of all their service contracts. They don’t all take it. Some plow the money back into the department to cover expenses. In many counties, there’s no way of telling how much of a cut the sheriff is collecting. But that 5% can hit the high five figures or even cross into six figures. It’s a lot of money.
The need to be entrepreneurial, and the prospect of collecting a share of every contract, create a strong incentive to expand offerings and find new “markets” for armed officers of the law. This is what leads to scams like the speed trap in Bridgewater, which benefits the town and the Windsor County Sheriff at the expense of inattentive drivers. Honestly, I’d be surprised if there weren’t more such things going on.
This situation used to be a lot worse. Sheriffs were pretty much independent with little to no oversight. In the past two or three decades, the Legislature has tried to remedy this problem with some success. Things are better, but they’re still not great.
One of those remedies is a requirement that sheriffs submit financial statements to the state Auditor of Accounts. Those statements, which include a list of contracts, are posted on the Auditor’s website. (Note: These aren’t posted every year. The first seven in alphabetical order are from 2021: Addison, Bennington, Caledonia, Chittenden, Essex, Franklin, and Grand Isle. The other seven are from 2018.)
The biggest surprise was exactly how dependent the sheriffs are on contract work. The Addison County Sheriff’s Department gets almost 60% of its funding from contracts. It’s about the same in Bennington County. It’s 67% in Windham County, more than 80% in Franklin, and almost 90% in Lamoille. Essex County, at 47%, is the only department under 50% in contract funding. So you can see how powerful the entrepreneurial incentive is. Sheriffs couldn’t operate if they relied solely on public funds.
To put it another way, our sheriff’s departments are more cops-for-hire than a component of the criminal justice system. Does that seem suboptimal to anyone?
The funding reports are full of fascinating information and maddeningly few details. They list every contractor, but they don’t say what the contract was for. It’d be nice to know that, since there are incredible disparities among similar entities.
For instance, Bridgewater spent $231,245 in FY2018 for its speed trap. But other communities spend far more than that, while others spend little or nothing. Many of those differences can be explained in terms of the sheer amount of policing a community needs. St. Albans Town sends more than a million dollars to the Franklin County Sheriff, presumably because it requires a lot more policing than, say, Fletcher. But some figures are just beyond belief.
The town of Fairfax, population 5,014, spends more than $200,000 on sheriff services. Vernon, population 2,192, sent the Windham County Sheriff $232,960 in FY2018. That’s more than $100 per resident. For the Sheriff’s Department. Must be a crime-ridden hellhole to rival Burlington.
Putney and Westminster spent $70,000 apiece, while the other towns in Windham County didn’t have contracts with the sheriff at all.
Similar story in Windsor County. Besides Bridgewater’s speed-trap contract, Plymouth spent $276,843 in 2018 and Royalton spent almost $58,000. No other towns in the county had contracts with the sheriff. Why were Plymouth’s needs so high? Protecting the Calvin Coolidge Historic Site?
The king of big-money contracts is Roger Marcoux, sheriff of Lamoille County. His list has some eye-popping numbers. Town of Wolcott, $244,113. Stowe, $268,174. Hyde Park $442,519. Johnson $496,944.
I realize they’ve got to ride herd on all those college students, but a half million dollars for Johnson?
The kicker on Lamoille’s list is $231,214 to the town of Barre, which is in Washington County. It’s the only sheriff’s contract with a municipality that’s outside the sheriff’s jurisdiction.
There may be reasonable explanations for all these figures, but damned if I know what they are.
Another thing. A handful of schools spend big on sheriff’s services. $48,173 for the Pownal Elementary School, $49,718 for Shaftsbury Elementary. Over $60,000 for Mount Mansfield Union High School. More than $70,000 for the Enosburg Richford Unified School District.
And that’s all. No other school or district spent a dime on sheriff’s services. Why those four?
There are plenty more tantalizing tidbits, but let’s move on to that 5% of all contracts state law allows sheriffs to collect. Each department has its own policy, and some of them make it impossible to figure out how much the sheriff collected. The Grand Isle and Windsor sheriffs receive the full 5%, which means outgoing Windsor sheriff Mike Chamberlain collected more than $11,000 in a single year for that Bridgewater speed trap.
In Bennington County, the sheriff “takes a varying percentage… on a case-by-case basis.” The Bennington sheriff could have taken as much as $65,000 in FY2021 if he collected the entire 5%, but we don’t know how much he actually got. Lamoille, where Sheriff Marcoux’s full 5% would amount to more than $160,000, the policy is “case-by-case basis.”
In Rutland and Windham, the policy is a nice vague “up to” 5%. In Orange County, the sheriff doesn’t collect any of the 5%. In Washington County, there are “no written guidelines or policies.” Really?
Some sheriffs spend some or all of their cut on departmental expenses. Others pocket the money. But it’s at their own discretion. State law leaves the door open to a healthy salary augmentation as a reward for, uh, being so entrepreneurial?
Presumably these policies are established by each county. But should they be? Should there be this much wiggle room and this little public disclosure?
I’m sure the vast majority of sheriffs past and present are fine, upstanding people. But the system gives plenty of space for the avaricious and the careless.
Outright corruption relatively rare, but how much do we lose to poor management? Sheriffs are, by and large, law enforcement professionals who may have never managed anything bigger than their own family finances. Now they’re suddenly responsible for an enterprise with a seven-figure budget. Even if they have the best of intentions, are they capable of top-quality financial administration? Chances are, they’re not.
So, even if the institution was fully protected from misuse, which it definitely is not, there’s almost certainly a significant amount of wastage. If we abolished sheriffs and centralized rural enforcement under the State Police, we’d almost certainly save a fair bit of money. We’re supposedly interested in efficiency in government. Why are we putting up with the institution of sheriff? Is there a reason beyond pure entropy?