Government & Politics

‘Dead on arrival’: New Orange County sheriff bemoans department’s woeful finances

The Orange County Sheriff's Department. Creative Commons photo.

Dead on arrival. That’s how Orange County’s new sheriff, George Contois, described the department he inherited from former sheriff Bill Bohnyak on Feb. 1. 

“When I first tried for the position, everything looked good,” Contois said in an interview on Monday. “Then all of a sudden, when I got an opportunity to take a look at the books, I realized that there was a pig in a poke.”

Receiving minimal help with the transition, Contois still lacks access to some of the department’s computers — he doesn’t know the passwords, he said. Unmarked keys and old boots lie strewn about, useless. He says the disaster appeared “premeditated.”

George Contois. Courtesy photo

According to Contois, the financial situation within the department is far less healthy than he anticipated. The best vehicles were sold off by the last sheriff, leaving an aging fleet with liens attached, he said. Bills went unpaid, according to Contois, and perhaps most worrying, he discovered a nearly $30,000 debt owed to the county.

Bohnyak lost his reelection bid to Contois back in November. After Bohnyak called for a recount, the vote was reaffirmed. A tumultuous transition ensued as Contois grew frustrated with what he characterized as Bohnyak’s lack of help with the transition. Emails later showed Contois attempted to take control of the department before he was sworn in, leading Bohnyak to temporarily suspend Contois’ email access.

Since the election, 17 of 21 deputies and all of the department’s administrators have quit — ostensibly leaving the department in lock step with Bohnyak — hamstringing the sheriff’s department.

Sheriff’s departments are partially funded by their county governments and receive some minimal funding from the state, but rely primarily on contracts for revenue. Those contracts include security work for courts, patrol contracts with individual towns, and traffic safety work, among others. 

The sheriffs themselves are able to keep up to 5% of the contract money their departments receive, though many reinvest a portion of those funds into the department. 

Already, the Orange County department has forfeited a number of its typical responsibilities. The sheriff’s departments in Windsor and Washington counties are performing civil responsibilities for Contois — things like evictions and other court orders. The Lamoille County sheriff has taken over dispatching services for Contois. And without enough manpower, Orange County no longer has a state-funded deputy responsible for transporting prisoners, cutting off an important portion of the limited state funds that flow into sheriff’s departments. 

With four deputies currently, Contois said two to three are needed to fulfill court security duties, leaving a single officer to handle town patrol contracts. Lose just one more body — as Contois fears he will — and patrols might prove unfeasible. 

But that describes only Orange County’s lost revenue opportunities. There’s also the accounts payable. 

According to Orange County assistant judges Joyce McKeeman and Laurel Mackin, who help set the county’s finances, the county had a longstanding deal with former sheriff Bohnyak that involved the sheriff’s department reimbursing the county for its own administrative staff salaries. 

“Employee paychecks were issued by the county in the full amount of their salaries, and the Sheriff was back-billed for his portion of salary and payroll taxes,” the two judges wrote in a joint email. “This system worked smoothly until fiscal (year) 2022. Despite being billed and notified numerous times that these payments were overdue during fiscal 2022, the OCSD only belatedly paid a portion of that amount.”

According to the assistant judges, the county received a $9,000 check signed by Bohnyak to pay off a portion of the debt two days after he left office. That’s left Contois with approximately $29,000 in debt to the county. Because the sheriff’s department now has no county-funded administrators, the department is no longer accruing debt. 

Bill Bohnyak. Courtesy photo

In 2022, Orange County contributed $394,000 toward the compensation of OCSD staff.

Bohnyak denied that his department had incurred that much debt to pay administrative staff, calling the roughly $30,000 figure “flat-out lying” by Contois and the side judges.

He said that, in the final weeks of his term, the department did take on debt to pay out the accumulated vacation days of all the deputies that quit. He called those payments “unexpected” and did not specify how much debt they caused. 

With limited money coming in, the new Orange County sheriff is left with a growing stack of bills.

“I'm trying to pay off Verizon, I'm trying to pay off Consolidated (Communications), by giving little dribs and drabs here and there. But you know, it's getting worrisome,” Contois said. 

The department is considering selling its firearms to pay off some of the debt, Contois said.

A history of struggles

While Contois may have been taken aback by the financial situation in the department he inherited, the state has long known about messy and irregular bookkeeping in Orange County.

The state government performs regular financial audits of Vermont’s sheriff departments as well as additional audits when new sheriffs are elected. Over the years, the auditing firm the state hires has had unique difficulty acquiring the records it needed from Orange County.

“That's the only county we've had that level of challenge in terms of the sufficiency and quality of the data,” said Doug Hoffer, the state auditor. “They've struggled with bookkeeping and accounting procedures and processes.”

Orange County’s disorganized finances have caused extended delays in previous financial audits, according to Hoffer.

“I wouldn't wish to be Sheriff Contois. He's in an awkward situation, for sure. I'm sympathetic. What can I do?” Hoffer mused.

Considering the Orange County department’s debts and declining revenue, the situation raises the question: What happens if a sheriff’s department goes belly-up?

“That’s a really good question,” Hoffer said. “I’m not sure.”

One person who does recall a dire financial situation within a Vermont sheriff’s department is Roger Marcoux, who has been Lamoille County’s sheriff since 2001.

In 2006, a state audit found that then-Windham County Sheriff Sheila Prue had used public money for personal expenses. Prue “nearly bankrupted her department,” according to reporting by The Associated Press, and the state of the department’s bookkeeping was “in no condition to be audited,” according to the state auditor. 

Prue later pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement.

According to Marcoux, sheriff’s departments “pooled money” multiple times to help the Windham department “make payroll and everything while we helped develop a remedial plan to get to a positive cashflow.”

But he doesn’t see Orange County’s finances reaching that level of need, and noted that he and other sheriffs are “trying to help.”

“If (Sheriff Contois) is smart about the business aspects of the department — it will take time — but he’ll be able to get out of it,” Marcoux said. “Hopefully he did his research before he ran.”

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Ethan Weinstein

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