Virden casts doubt on reliability of accounting report

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Sheriff Eddie Virden, during a meeting of the Osage County Excise Board on Sept. 2, aired his unhappiness with a report prepared by a Tulsa accounting firm regarding his office's financial management, as well as with remarks he said that he understood had been made about his office.

Virden said what he heard had been said "really, really, really upset me," and he had talked with District 1 County Commissioner Randall Jones about his concerns.

"I'm still very upset with what I heard," Virden said. He commented to Excise Board members Ben West and Mike Hayman that the report, prepared at the request of the Board of County Commissioners by Elfrink and Associates of Tulsa, inflated the cost of food for county jail inmates by including staff salary data in the calculations.

Virden provided West and Hayman with food cost information, minus salary data, as well as with what he described as data regarding national averages for inmate food costs. Hayman reviewed the inmate food cost data Virden provided for the Osage County jail and said it looked "pretty low" to him.

Also among the items in the 13-page accounting report that the sheriff and members of his staff said they found of doubtful reliability was a listing of payroll and benefits data on Page 7, which appeared to show the undersheriff consistently being compensated more than the sheriff.

Virden complained that the Elfrink and Associates report was entirely focused on his department, but he had understood the county commissioners intended to look at budgets of several departments in a search for solutions to current budgetary troubles.

Jones defended the intent of the Elfrink report. No one from the firm was present for the discussion.

"This was not a gotcha report," Jones said. He added that the report did not constitute an audit, and there was no bias involved in its preparation. In fact, the report revealed details that pointed toward the Sheriff's Office doing a good job, he said.

"This was just a helpful tool, and that's all it was," Jones said. He said other county departments are being examined financially, and he has pulled time sheets. He denied any suggestion that the county commissioners might be picking on a particular department. He did not say whether the Elfrink firm would be involved in examinations of other departments.

Jones acknowledged that he and Virden have had conversations about the financial difficulties facing the county.

"There has got to be accountability all over the county," Virden said.

The Excise Board decided, based on a suggestion by County Clerk Shelia Bellamy, not to take any immediate action on the Sheriff's Office budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, until more information is available.

The Excise Board did vote, however, to approve an approximately $54,000 expense to help the Sheriff's Office finance a transition to being able to provide pre-arrival instructions for use by residents while they are waiting for emergency personnel to make it to their locations.

Virden also warned the Excise Board that his deputies are already in danger because of low staffing levels related to cost cutting. He said it is not unusual for his field deputies to be driving at high speed toward the source of an emergency call in a vehicle with roughly 200,000 miles on it. He added that he is trying to organize a "citizens' academy" to teach residents how to defend themselves until a deputy can make it to them.

"We've got to teach the citizens to defend themselves or hold their ground," Virden said.