Commonwealth Journal

February 28, 2014

Council has issues with 'Shop-Loss' program

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — City councilors have some questions about the specifics of $25,000 recently given to a local prosecutor to help combat shoplifting in the area.

During Monday’s Somerset City Council meeting, Councilor John Ricky Minton, along with others, raised questions about an agreement drawn up between the City of Somerset and Commonwealth’s Attorney Eddy F. Montgomery’s office that included $25,000 to be used toward Project Shop-Loss.

“On this shoplifting money, is there any way we can hold off on that until (the expenditures are explained)?” asked Councilor John Ricky Minton during Monday’s Somerset City Council meeting.  

The program focuses on communication between the local retailers and authorities in uncovering shoplifting rings in the area. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney David Dalton appeared before city council during the Jan. 27 meeting and asked for funding to go toward expenditures and overtime for the program.

Dalton stated openly in the Jan. 27 meeting that the money would go to help supplement his and a paralegal’s pay in carrying out facets of the program — often to be done after-hours and on weekends — but councilors are concerned about exactly where those funds are going.

The council unanimously voted to approve the $25,000 for the Shop-Loss program during the Jan. 27 meeting.

“I’d like to see a budgetary breakdown on it,” said Councilor Jim Rutherford during Monday’s meeting, who during the Jan. 27 meeting had asked that Dalton look into using the money to fund advertisements about the program, among other things.

Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler said the contract between the city and Montgomery’s office had already been carried out, but he noted the contract can easily be modified and scrutinized.

“Any contract can be modified,” said Girdler.

“But will they be changed?” asked Minton.

Girdler said the modifications can be made within the next two weeks.

“I think it needs to be done quicker than that,” Minton said. “ ... I don’t agree with it. I think it needs to be put on hold, or contact Mr. Dalton and tell him ... put the money aside right now until ... he can come back and explain to us a little better.”

On Friday, Somerset City Attorney Carrie Wiese said Dalton was working on a break-down of the funds to present to city councilors .

“Right now, he’s working on sort of an outline for the program and what hours he expects to use,” said Wiese.

A letter from Montgomery’s office to the Prosecutors Advisory Council dated Jan. 30 requests that the council administer the $25,000, with $20,000 of that going toward Dalton’s salary and $5,000 going toward a paralegal’s salary.

“I would have liked to see the budgetary breakdown on hourly overtime wages ... instead of just a flat amount increase,” said Rutherford. “There were supposed to be some actual expenses.”

The agreement drawn up between the city and Montgomery’s office specifies that the $25,000 is to go toward “ ... any and all costs associated with the services set forth under this agreement, including but not limited to supplementing the income of a minimum of one prosecuting attorney of the 28th Judicial Circuit’s Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, and one additional staff member of said office, both to ensure that the scope of services is given the maximum amount of attention needed to fulfill the purpose of this agreement.

“The parties agree that the recipient shall determine the exact distribution of these funds to the prosecuting attorney’s office, staff, expenses, costs, etc. of performing under this agreement,” states the document.

Councilor Tom Eastham said he felt that Dalton was very open about what the money was going toward.

 “He didn’t lay out anything specific other than what was in the contract. The money would be to supplement various salaries and benefits for him and the paralegal,” said Eastham. “He spoke that, even though we didn’t read that.

“If you didn’t read the contract and you voted ... then it’s not this guy’s fault,” Eastham continued. “I hope the public knows that I don’t believe he’s trying to do anything wrong. He’s absolutely trying to do the right thing.”

Councilor Pat Bourne also pointed out that the city often gives grants to organizations that are often used at those organizations’ discretion.

“I don’t know if we specify what their money’s supposed to be spent for,” said Bourne. “We leave it at their discretion on how they want to spend that money. And I’m sure that some of it goes to salaries. I would be confident of that.”

“Does 100 percent of it?” asked Minton.

“John, I don’t know,” answered Bourne.

Minton said Wiese specifically stated during the Jan. 27 meeting that the city’s ABC money cannot go toward someone’s salary.

 “She said this money cannot be spent on salaries,” Minton said. “This money is being spent on salaries 100 percent. ... The money is going to pay raises.”

On Friday, Wiese confirmed she did state that, but she said there was some miscommunication in how her statement was received. Wiese said the money can be used to supplement salaries as long as it’s specified in the contract that the extra time allotted goes toward the Shop-Loss program.  

“I made sure it would be time above and beyond what he usually spends on this stuff,” said Wiese.

During Monday’s meeting Wiese said she would “be happy” to sit down with Dalton and detail exactly how the funds are being spent.

 “If he (Dalton) fulfills the contract, it’s a non-issue,” said Eastham. “Now whether we trust him to do so ... I trusted the man’s initiative, his desire, his passion to do something, and he was very serious about what he was doing.

“But he did make the remark to us verbally that it was for salaries and benefits for him, for overtime, and weekend work and for a paralegal,” Eastham continued. “ ... Whether that’s right or not, I feel it falls in the guidelines of policing, law enforcement, and he’s trying to help out the community.

“We’ve paid many millions of dollars out for things we never asked a question about,” added Eastham.