Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree said Tuesday he was putting an end to a nearly 50-year-old practice in Richmond County.
Roundtree said he transferred all money from the old sheriff’s benevolent fund – more than $40,000 – to an account controlled by his new nonprofit corporation. The sheriff said he also seeking to have the fund’s main source of money – fees for funeral procession escorts – to be channeled through the city’s Finance Department.
Roundtree said when the transition is complete, all the money, fees and donations will be accounted for by an independent auditor.
“It will all be audited,” he said. “It will be handled just like all of our other funds.”
Roundtree said he established the nonprofit – Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Benevolent Fund Inc. – to better account for donations intended to benefit his officers and to provide better transparency.
Since 2008, fees and donations have averaged more than $30,000 per year, according to sheriff’s office financial records.
Until last month, all that money had been kept in an unaudited checking account controlled by the sheriff – a practice established in the 1960s by Sheriff George Mutimer.
Mutimer said the fund was intended to provide a source of money for “unforeseen expenses” for deputies and to buy flowers for the ill or deceased. At the time, the fund’s main source was vending machines in the Richmond County jail.
Over time, the source became primarily fees charged for the work of deputies escorting funeral processions. In recent years, the fund was still used for flowers and to help deputies having financial trouble, but most of the money was spent on Christmas parties, retirement events, sponsorships and other purposes.
Roundtree said that according to standard nonprofit practice, the account will be audited each year and the fund will be required to file a tax return each year that will be available for public inspection.
As for the funeral escort fees, the sheriff said a new procedure will need to be established.
Until last month, checks from funeral homes were deposited directly into the benevolent fund checking account. Roundtree said he wants the money directed to the finance department, much like revenue generated from the jail commissary and inmate telephone calls.
He can’t change that by himself, however.
“We will continue as always until we get direction from the county commission and the general counsel,” he said.
The city attorney needs to weigh in because the way the fee is currently collected and handled places its legality in doubt, according to state officials. State law requires all public revenue to be accounted for in the county’s financial statements and presented for audits.
Officials with the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association have said county sheriffs cannot collect such fees unless authorized by a local ordinance.
Roundtree expects the Augusta Commission will want to put such an ordinance in place, although it has yet to be proposed.
Commissioner Grady Smith said he agrees the issue needs to be addressed, and soon. Smith said if the commission ignores the fee and allows it to continue without formal authorization, that could create legal problems down the line.
“We need to do what is above board and what is correct,” he said. “I will be the first one to say to the sheriff, ‘I don’t have a problem with it if it is handled in the right way.’ ”