Navajo-Hopi Nations,Flagstaff & Winslow News
Sat, Sept. 19

Apache Co consolidates emergency services into single department

ST. JOHNS -- The Apache County Board of Supervisors approved, in a 2-1 vote during a Jan. 17 board meeting, the consolidation of the county's Homeland Security, Emergency Management Services and Bio-Terrorism offices into a single department, at the request of Apache County Manager Delwin Wengert.

"The formation of the Apache County Emergency Management Office accomplishes two tasks, he said. It makes the county's Emergency Management more effective because it brings three related offices financially under one umbrella; and it removes financial control of Homeland Security and Emergency Management funds from the Sheriff's Office".

The monies for the three offices will be immediately transferred into the new department, Wengert said, with the primary change being financial and record keeping. The new department would be overseen by the county manager's office.

"The measure to create the Apache County Emergency Management Office--which was financially necessary for the county because of lost insurance coverage for the Apache County Sheriff's Office due to criminal indictments--will not affect emergency services to the public," Wengert added.

"Removing financial control from the Sheriff's Office became necessary following the felony indictments of Sheriff Brian Hounshell and Deputy Sheriff Brian Hough for allegedly misusing more than $8,000 in public funds," Wengert said.

The indictments against the Sheriff's Office were later dismissed because they were filed by the Attorney General's Office in Maricopa County and not Apache County. They were dismissed without prejudice however, meaning they can still be re-filed in the appropriate jurisdiction. The Attorney General's Office filed an appeal in November 2005 and is currently seeking to reverse the decision. The charges have not been resolved.

The indictments caused the county's insurance provider-- the Arizona Counties Insurance Pool--to drop its liability coverage of the Sheriff's Office regarding any alleged misuse of public money by the sheriff or chief deputy.

The insurance coverage is only good until the point of discovery of any alleged misuse of public funds.

"As a criminal indictment constitutes 'discovery,' the county's crime coverage no longer will apply to any loss occasioned by the acts of these individuals," said William H. Hardy, executive director of the county's insurance carrier, in a June 2005 letter to Wengert. "Until the matter is sorted out, we urge that the county take appropriate actions to provide oversight to the extent that these individuals control county funds or property."

The lost coverage currently makes the county as whole and the Apache County Board of Supervisor's individually liable for any financial misconduct of public funds in the Sheriff's Office.

County supervisors Tom M. White Jr., District 3 and David Brown, District 2, voted in favor of the new department. Supervisor Jim Claw, District 1, voted against it.

White said he voted in favor of the new department, after listening to the pros and cons, because of the financial and bonding issues. If there is an emergency, everyone knows who will respond. It is just a matter of who will take care of the paperwork, he said during the board meeting.

White added he was looking at the needs of the entire county, and not just his district, in reaching his decision.

Financial liability was also the issue in his voting yes for the new department, Brown said, adding, he was not willing to put the taxpayers or the board's personal resources at risk financially due to lack of insurance, or a bond, for the Sheriff's Office.

The measure also had the support of Apache County Deputy County Attorney Brad Carlyon, who stated it was necessary because of the dropped insurance coverage and lack of a bond from the Sheriff's Office.

"We need to have someone with more skill in records keeping management", Carlyon said during the board meeting. For example, the Hazard Mitigation Plan for the county is not complete. The sheriff's office has had the information since October 2004. The county has been informed by the Arizona Department of Emergency Management that the entire grant is in jeopardy due to the lack of response by the sheriff's office.

Hounshell has refused a repeated request by Wengert to post a $100,000 bond to make up for the gap in insurance coverage for the Sheriff's Office. He is currently fighting the measure to post a bond in Superior Court. Two hearings have been set; the sheriff has asked for and received a delay on both.

In the board meeting, Hounshell said the action is a ploy to stop services that are provided in northern Apache County. He also said he considers the action a direct attack on him as the sheriff.

"The sheriff has made these claims in the past and I am sure will continue to make them in the future," Wengert said. "However, the truth is that the county has lost insurance coverage as a direct result of the sheriff's problems within his own agency and has forced the board to take actions to protect the taxpayer's of Apache County."

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