Monday, June 02, 2008

Fletcher's Follies, Parts 1 and 2

Copyright 2008 Douglas J. Hester. This article may be freely copied, distributed and quoted, provided attribution is given to the author.

Part 1. Introduction

Sheriff Bob Fletcher of Ramsey County, Minnesota has come under fire from a number of directions in recent years. He won an extremely close, hard-fought re-election battle against former St. Paul police chief Bill Finney in 2006, has faced lawsuits from deputies over alleged unwarranted demotions, and recently the Ramsey County Charter Commission came within one vote of recommending a ballot initiative that would change the office of the Sheriff to an appointed position rather than an elected one, making it unique among Minnesota’s 87 counties. This vote was seen in some quarters as a negative reflection on the job performance of Sheriff Fletcher.

Fletcher has also been criticized for having an ever-expanding budget, which according to an article published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on May 5, 2008 has increased by 51% since he took office, compared to 38.5 percent over the same period of time for the larger Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. According to that same article, Fletcher is described as someone who is known for not following established procedures, preferring to formulate his own policies. A former political rival is quoted as saying that Fletcher “creates his own book”.

Nowhere do the issues of Fletcher’s spending habits and his reputation for doing things his own way come together more neatly than on his seemingly maverick policy of issuing handgun carry permits. There have been rumors for years that the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office has improperly spent thousands of dollars on over budgeted resources for the department responsible for issuing permits, has wasted even more taxpayer money by having to pay attorney fees for a significant number of permit applicants who successfully appeal their denial to a judge, and, most disturbingly, the Sheriff’s Office has been widely suspected of systematically denying handgun carry permits to a much larger percentage of applicants than the other counties in Minnesota, for no reasonable explanation.

The resource to validate these rumors is the annual Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) Permit to Carry Report, for which each county sheriff in Minnesota is required to submit detailed information regarding the number of permits applied for in each county, the numbers issued and denied, the reasons for those denials, as well as an itemized breakdown of the costs incurred by the counties in issuing the permits. The annual reports from 2005 through 2007 were scrutinized, and some very interesting facts were uncovered. The numbers involved are fairly dry, but a detailed analysis produces some very shocking and eye-opening revelations. To avoid overwhelming the reader, the results from the inspection of the data are broken up into several sections: An analysis of the financial data that Sheriff Fletcher is reporting for his permit department, an examination of Ramsey County’s anecdotally reported higher-than average denial rate, and finally a huge surprise found when looking deeper inside the data.

Part 2. Sheriff Fletcher’s Reported Financial Information

To assess the level of spending on issuing handgun permits in Ramsey County, the financial information that Sheriff Fletcher reported to the BCA in 2007 was compared to the reports submitted by the other counties in Minnesota. By law, sheriffs are required to provide the following information regarding the costs of issuing handgun carry permits for inclusion in the annual BCA report:

1. Nature and amount of revenues;
2. Nature and amount of expenditures; and
3. Nature and amount of balances.

The maximum allowable application fee for a new handgun permit, set by state law, is the lesser of $100 or the cost to the sheriff of issuing the permit. Similarly, the fee for a permit renewal is the lesser of $75.00 or the cost to the sheriff of performing the renewal.

Let’s examine the reported financial data for the seven-county Twin Cities metro area (click on the picture for an enlargement):

Interpreting the data:

----- Sheriff Fletcher states that he took in $66,950 in revenue and expended $139,331.53, leaving a net loss to his department of $72,381.53.

----- No other county lost anywhere near as much money processing handgun carry permits. Only 12 other Minnesota counties in the entire state reported losses, generally in the low thousands of dollars. Most of the county sheriffs, however, actually turned a profit from issuing permits.

----- Sheriff Rich Stanek of Hennepin County, to the west of Ramsey, reported a modest 3% profit for his office, while processing 863 more permits than Fletcher.

----- Sheriff Don Gudmundson of Dakota County, just to the south of Ramsey, enjoyed a whopping 72% profit, a margin most for-profit businesses could only dream of.

----- Sheriff William Hutton of Washington County made over $6,000 in 2007, and as a result he admirably respected the spirit of the law and lowered his fees to $75.00 for a new application and $55.00 for a renewal, in order to more accurately reflect his costs and avoid overcharging the public.

----- St. Louis County, which handles a comparable amount of permits as Ramsey County from year to year, did not submit financial information for the 2007 report. In 2006, however, it reported a profit of $26,177.85.

Looking at the cost per permit for the 7-county metro area (See Figure 1), we find that Sheriff Fletcher spends by far the most money on processing permits, an astronomical $216 per permit application.

Why are Sheriff Fletcher’s costs so much more than the others?

The highest individual expenditure that Sheriff Fletcher cites in his report is approximately $96,000 in salary and an additional $32,000 or so in benefits for two fairly well compensated employees to process permits full-time. One of these is a sworn officer, David Rossman, and the other is a non-sworn clerk. Assuming 50 five-day workweeks in a year, this means that each staffer would share in processing an average of 1.3 permits per day, or 0.65 permits each. Since most of the required background information on applicants can be obtained in minutes by computer, those two public positions seem to be quite cushy jobs for people who make more than 1/3 more in salary than the median income for residents of Ramsey County.

There have been several anecdotes in the local pro-carry community about these employees canvassing the neighborhoods of applicants, chatting up neighbors and friends in an attempt to find something, anything, however minor, that would allow the sheriff to deny the applicant their permit, the reason given usually being “danger to self or others”. This theory figures prominently later on in Parts 3 and 4 of the analysis, when Fletcher’s denial rate is analyzed more thoroughly.

Another significant cost to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, and by extension the public, is the cost of appeals. Under the MPPA, if the sheriff is found to have wrongly denied an applicant their carry permit, the sheriff’s office must pay reasonable attorney fees for the applicant’s appeal.

Of the permits that Sheriff Fletcher denied in 2007, 62 appealed to the court system. Of those, 15 were subsequently issued permits after the applicant appealed the rejection, and 4 more were awaiting a decision when the time period of the report concluded. That’s a significant number of denials being overturned by a judge, and an awfully high (and awfully expensive to the taxpayers) false positive, particularly given that these denials don’t seem to be supported by official documentation, and appear to be a judgment call on the part of someone. This is precisely the kind of arbitrary decision-making that the MPPA was designed to prevent. One can only imagine how much higher Fletcher’s costs billed to the taxpayer really are, if the funds paid out to applicants’ attorneys were factored into his expenditures.

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, at least when it comes to running the handgun permit department, indeed seems to be quite profligate in spending money at the taxpayers’ expense. One wonders what a full accounting of the entire sheriff’s office would turn up.

Next: What was found when reviewing the details of one of Sheriff Fletcher’s reported categories justifying the denial of handgun permit applications. The results are unexpected and quite enlightening.


Informer said...

Nice work by the way. Love the blog name.

joelr said...

Terrific work, Doug. Can't wait for the next installments.

Anonymous said...

The legisilative auditor is supposed to review their expenses on a regular basis.

I'll be writing my legislators to find out if and when that's suppose to happen.