Despite budget deficit, Wayne County Sheriff's officials rack up huge gas bills

DETROIT (WXYZ) -  

Money at the Wayne County jail is so tight that Sheriff Benny Napoleon said recently that he'd have to let out a thousand accused criminals just to meet budget.

Speaking to county commissioner in August, he said: "I don't think anybody sitting at this table wants to go into their community and say we released a thousand dangerous murderers, rapists, robbers, car jackers, B&E men, child molesters, spouse abusers back into your community."

So when the department couldn't afford to keep paying its gas card bills, it probably shouldn't have caught our attention.  But it did.

We wanted to see just who's getting free county gas these days.  Indeed, some of the department's 90 or so cards are assigned to officers who need to drive a lot, like those in drug enforcement and parks patrol. 

But others are more curious: lawyers, administrators and command staff who don't have much need to be on the road, and aren't responding to 911.

Ursula Henry is a lawyer for the department. Her department bio says she works on contracts, labor agreements and, most recently, the failed jail project. She's not an officer and doesn't carry a gun, but has racked up some of the largest gas bills that you've been paying: like $306 worth last year in May and $345 in August. 

Month after month she kept charging you for her gas, until officials realized this Spring she shouldn't have had that county car in the first place. They took her keys, and then her card.  

Undersheriff Dan Pfannes acknowledges that even a few thousand dollars in waste a month is still enough to worry about.

"All the little details add up, there's a cumulative value to everything," Pfannes said.

But he says the Sheriff believes paying for an employee's gas—even if they mostly just drive to and from home—is worth it if a 9/11-type event ever happens here.

"By having people with vehicles, by having people with access to gas, it fits into his business model of being able to have people respond at any moment of any time," Pfannes said.

But what sort of emergencies is James Spivey responding to?  He's also a lawyer who oversees the sheriff's court services division. Other than a couple of meetings a month just a few miles from his downtown office, he told me by phone that he "pretty much" sticks to his desk.

His biggest daily drive is 86 miles to and from his home in Ann Arbor.

In gas alone, Spivey spent $505 in February last year, $521 later that April and in August, he spent $684. He filled-up 13 times that month, with186 gallons in all. At his county vehicle's 21 miles per gallon, that's nearly 4,000 miles traveled in just one month.  By comparison, that's nearly enough to drive from Detroit to Las Vegas and back.

Pfannes was surprised when told of Spivey's driving history.

"4,000 miles? In a month?" he responded.

Spivey wouldn't talk to us on camera, so we found him outside his office as he was about to rack up a few more miles. 

He closed the door on our microphone without answering any questions.

By phone, Spivey did say that once every 7 weeks he's on call as a duty officer, responding to any emergencies inside the department. For his last stint, he said there were none.  But he added that it's important to be ready.

Wayne County Commissioner Ray Basham is skeptical.

"If you don't have a good answer, it's always good to throw public safety in the public's face," he said.

Basham chairs the county's audit committee and, as we speak, county investigators are probing the use of the Sheriff's gas cards, looking for waste.

"You have a hundred million dollar budget, you're $30 million over. You should be looking for efficiencies," Basham said.
 
Press Director Paula Bridges received a card, too, and she's given it a workout.  Records show she spent an average of $336 month on county gas, filling up as many as 9 times a month.

"You always want to be sure that our resources are being used effectively, the way they should be used," Bridges said.

Her bill for August of last year shows she racked up almost $493 in gas, enough for about 2,300 miles; the distance from Detroit to California.

"That seems a little hard to believe," Jones said to Bridges.

"It was a busy month," she said.

"What were you doing?" Jones asked.

"I wish I could reflect on what happened 12 months ago, I did not have something that was written down," she replied.

Bridges gave her card and vehicle back in March. After our interview, she sent me an e-mail saying she attends community events almost daily, but that her biggest single expense is driving to work all the way from her home in Canton.  At 62 miles round trip, that's 1,100 miles a month.

"Are we just paying for a lot of these people to drive to and from home?" Jones asked Pfannes.

"I don't actually have the answer to that," he said.

The sheriff's office says they're reviewing James Spivey's gas usage, and everyone else in the department with a card. The Wayne County Commission's audit of the department's gas card use is due out later on this month, and sources say it won't be pretty.

Contact 7 Action News Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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