| Jasper County Sun Times
Jasper County records show that Sheriff Chris Malphrus’ office overspent its budget by more than $900,000 in the 2019 fiscal year and more than $400,000 in 2018. Though this year’s budget numbers are not yet finalized, they indicate that Malphrus’ office overspent its budget by more than $1 million.
County Council recently asked its attorney to seek advice from the South Carolina attorney general about how to handle the most recent overage. Meanwhile, Malphrus disputes the county’s budget numbers for the 2020 fiscal year and says there were reasons he had to overspend the office’s budget in previous years.
County attorney David Tedder sent a letter June 25 to S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson asking if any action should be taken because of the overage for 2020.
The letter, which was first obtained by the website FITSNews, mentioned Malphrus’ expenditure of “funds for overtime for deputies beyond budgeted amounts,” “for deputy salaries (including pay raises, promotions) that total beyond the amount authorized,” and “in excess of the amounts budgeted for vehicles and related expenditures.”
“The questions County Council have raised involve whether these over-expenditures, which were not authorized by Council, create a liability on the Sheriff’s part and what remedies or other course of action are available to Council,” Tedder said in the letter.
Assistant Attorney General Cydney Milling sent a response Aug. 17 stating, “for County Council to hold the Sheriff personally responsible, you would need to demonstrate to a court that he or she was negligent in exceeding the appropriations made by County Council. … County Council may not use its budgetary authority to interfere with the operating decisions of the Sheriff’s Department.”
The approved 2020 fiscal year budget for the sheriff’s office was $4,055,760. County records showed this month that the office ended up spending $5,075,159 for the year. Finance director Kim Burgess said the county is still preparing its annual financial audit for 2020.
Malphrus said in an interview with the Jasper County Sun Times that the only time county officials communicated with him about his budget was about four weeks ago when they asked for a meeting. He said he met with county administrator Andy Fulghum and Burgess on Sept. 16 to review the 2020 numbers.
“I had no idea a letter was being sent to the attorney general,” he said. “I found out because the sheriff’s association sent me a copy on June 25 of the letter and asked me about it.”
Fulghum said Monday the finance director and the sheriff’s office chief deputy had numerous meetings and discussions about the budget over the years.
County Councilman Tom Johnson said officials’ concerns about the sheriff’s office budget arose within the last year.
“I don’t think we realized the extent of the budget overrun until we were already approaching the next budget year,” Johnson told the Jasper County Sun Times. “We do have reserve funds, which could be used due to the overage.”
Johnson said the sheriff is considered a constitutional officer rather than a department head, which means council has no direct power to tell the sheriff what to do with the budget or how to use the funds.
“We are not totally powerless,” he said. “It is my role as a council member to tell the sheriff what he can spend, but not how he can spend it.”
Burgess said the county’s financial situation is closely monitored by staff and reported to council.
“Circumstances may arise throughout the year that were not anticipated and therefore not budgeted,” she told the Jasper County Sun Times. “That is one reason the county chooses to have a fund balance sufficient to cover unexpected expenditures.”
Malphrus said he believes the 2020 budget numbers are not accurate and that he has asked county officials for an explanation.
“In a nutshell, the county has released financial documentation that is inaccurate and incomplete,” Malphrus said. “I am not blaming them. I am just saying, ‘Help me understand. I just want clarity and I can assure you I did not spend $1 million carelessly.’”
Malphrus said there have been “a whole lot of unfunded mandates” in his budget, including health and vehicle insurance, that have risen each year. He said the mandates would account for about $590,000 of the spending.
“There were some overages due to things out of my control such as the COVID-19 pandemic, two hurricanes, the cyberattack the county experienced and an uptick in crime,” he said.
When asked about the mandates, Burgess said 68 percent of the overage was due to personnel costs, which include salary and wages, overtime, benefits, travel, training and uniforms.
“The percentage of salary and wages for retirement, FICA and workers compensation are set by either taxing authorities or state benefit authorities,” she said. “Medical insurance premiums and tort insurance is also mandated by state authorities. The number of employees, the salary and wages paid, and the overtime allowed is the direct responsibility of the Sheriff.”
Malphrus said having officers out with COVID-19 and having to disinfect facilities also increased spending. He said the county also mandated the installation of an encrypted radio system and that worker’s compensation from officer injuries in incidents like vehicle accidents also added to the numbers.
“There have been around 25 shootings within the past year or so, meaning we had to use additional staff at crime scenes to process the scenes,” Malphrus said. “This does not even include other crimes which also require the personnel such as car break-ins, burglaries and others. We probably did use $200,000 in overtime, but it was worth every red cent.”
Malphrus argued that some spending — on things like “body camera video storage,” which he said will be reimbursed through grants; an officer to handle maintenance of patrol cars; and wireless hotspots for deputies — “will save the county money in the long run.”
Malphrus said his office also brought in about $260,000 in fines, fees and forfeitures.
“The supposed $1 million overage does not include this income,” Malphrus said.
Johnson said fine money goes into the general fund.
“I’m nowhere near over $1 million in the budget,” Malphrus said. “All I am asking for are clear cut numbers when citizens think I just overspent by $1 million. I would invite any citizen to come and meet with me and I will go over all of this with them. My goal is to clear my name.”
Malphrus’ term is scheduled to end this year after he lost to challenger Donald Hipp in the Democractic primary in June. Hipp, a 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office investigator, is being challenged by sheriff’s office chief deputy Gary Morris, a petition candidate.
County records show the sheriff’s office has overspent its budget each year since Malphrus took office.
In 2017, when he was in office for half of the fiscal year, the budget was $2,937,488. The year ended with an overage of $261,259.
“In 2017, when I took office with half of the budget year already over, the prior sheriff had already spent an entire year’s budget in half a year,” Malphrus said. “I had to do what I could for the other half of the year.”
In 2018, the budget for the sheriff’s office was $3,408,960; it was overspent by $469,469. The 2019 budget was $3,431,060, with an overage of $925,070.
Malphrus said his office hired three new deputies in 2018, but the county did not budget for uniforms and other equipment, or for their overtime pay. He said in other budget years the county budgeted for the hiring of employees, but not their uniforms or vehicles or other equipment.
“Every year, I was behind the eight-ball,” Malphrus said.