Denton County Sheriff William Travis has recalled $115,500 in drug forfeiture money that his predecessor pledged to four area constables for in-car video systems, and that change has left at least one constable scrambling to better equip his deputies’ vehicles.
Last week, county commissioners approved spending $71,723 from the drug forfeiture fund to purchase two fully equipped 2013 Chevy Tahoes, one for Travis and the other for his operations chief, Randy Plemons.
Travis said he reclaimed the money from the constables because several sheriff’s vehicles were not properly equipped, and that action had nothing to do with the purchase of the vehicles.
“I need to take care of my own guys before I take care of everyone else. Their needs are what’s supposed to be first and foremost,” Travis said.
Before former Sheriff Benny Parkey left office in December, he awarded a total of $481,785 in forfeited funds to 18 police agencies, five constables and the Children’s Advocacy Center for Denton County to buy those agencies equipment they needed to run more efficiently.
Travis said there is about $500,000 to $600,000 in that fund now, and that money is needed to put basic law enforcement equipment in 14 vehicles in the sheriff’s fleet and to upgrade the county’s shooting range.
He sent letters to the constables on March 25, saying he intended to take back those funds.
“These funds will be used to outfit several fleet vehicles with basic emergency equipment; equipment not considered in the regular budgetary process when these vehicles were ordered,” the letter stated.
Precinct 5 Constable Doug Boydston of Sanger said the sudden notice during his own budget planning left him to look elsewhere for the money for the equipment.
“This was the last thing Parkey did before leaving office to help smaller agencies out, and now it’s being taken away,” Boydston said.
Donna Stewart, the budget officer for the county, said the funds can be spent for any law enforcement needs as the sheriff sees fit, as long as there is approval by commissioners to move the line items in the budget for recording purposes.
Sheriffs have the option of driving a county vehicle or receiving a car allowance to drive their own, county officials said. Denton County Treasurer Cindy Brown said Travis has not received any compensation for car allowance in his tenure.
While some of the drug forfeiture funds had been given as checks directly to agencies, some agencies were required to place purchase orders through the sheriff’s office.
Precinct 3 Constable Jerry Raburn of Lewisville said he presented his department’s “wish list” to Parkey at the end of last year, before Travis took office.
“We didn’t get everything, but I was able to get some ammo that we needed,” Raburn said.
Parkey said during his eight years as sheriff, the office had accrued a sizable seizure fund from narcotics investigations.
“I explored how this money could be used both internally in the sheriff's office and for other law enforcement agencies in Denton County,” Parkey said.
Five constables had more than $155,000 promised by Parkey to purchase in-car video systems — something Parkey said was needed for the safety and well-being of their departments.
Precinct 6 Constable Ron Smith’s office participated on a major seizure just before he took office, officials said, and that’s why he was not on the list to receive new cameras. In-car cameras from his own seizure funds were approved by commissioner’s on Tuesday. Smith’s office is in Carrollton.
Boydston said his deputies now have old VHS recorders in their cars but they don’t always work.
“We really need these, so I am just going to do what I can to try and work at least one or two into my own budget this year,” he said.
Precinct 2 Constable Michael Truitt of The Colony was the only constable who received cameras from the sheriff’s fund.
“I think it’s just because I immediately put my order in and stayed on top of the process all the way through,” Truitt said. “That, and I put in my order during Parkey’s administration, before Travis took over.”
Additionally, Truitt said, his approval might have had to do with the kind of equipment he wanted versus what the others wanted.
Truitt ordered Arbitrator systems and the remaining four constables ordered New Watch Guard systems.
Travis said he preferred the Arbitor systems, which the sheriff’s office already uses, because those systems keep videos stored on a server while the Watch Guard systems are kept on a disc.
“I want to be honest and just being able to throw away a disc is not what I want to see,” Travis said. “That’s what could and would happen, too.”
Documents presented to commissioners on Tuesday show one of the reasons they are not purchasing the systems was based on legal retention requirements — disc storage and maintenance of the systems.
The Arbitrator system is what Travis will be installing in some of his office’s own 10 patrol cars that need outfitting, he said. Four additional cars will also be fitted but with fewer add-ons than the patrol fleet.
He said he was left with only about $34,000 in his regular budget to install lights, camera, radio, etc. — into all 14 cars — and that’s the main reason the constable’s orders were canceled. He said he is still trying to determine how much these upgrades will cost.
Stewart said in her years of working on the county’s budget, the cars are always added into the budget with their additional required items in separate budget lines.
“Starting last year with the sheriff’s office, the cars were packaged all together [completely outfitted] into a single-line item,” Stewart said. “Even before then though, a car for patrol use wasn’t added without adding everything it needed as well.”
Johnny Hammons, the senior deputy constable for Precinct 1 based in Denton, said they have no cameras in any of their vehicles now.
“It would’ve been nice to have gotten our cars equipped, but we will survive,” he said.
Background information given to commissioners detailing the purchase of the new Tahoes last week also showed the remaining constables’ in-car video system purchase requests were deleted.
Travis said he plans to use the additional freed-up funds to add upgrades to the shooting range the county owns north of Denton.
He said the range now is just a shell, with no bathroom inside the building.
“The constables will use [the range], too — the finished product will benefit everyone in the county,” he said.
Also on Travis’ mind was the training facility under construction by the Denton Police Department.
Parkey gave $300,000 to Denton police Chief Lee Howell in September to help build the facility, pursuant to an agreement to secure the use of the finished project for five years to accommodate their basic peace officer academy.
“Recently, I have been in contact with representatives of the sheriff's office inquiring about the status of these funds and the status of the training facility project,” Howell said. “There is no intention in the near future for funds to exchange hands.”
Travis said he doesn’t believe anyone else was asked to return or give up promised items from the previous administration.
“I know the constables are upset, and I will reconsider helping them out in the future,” Travis said. “Right now, I gotta help myself here.”
MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.