PULASKI COUNTY, Ark.- In the past year, the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office racked up more than $1 million dollars in unpaid bills.
It’s gotten to the point that some of the companies that are owed money, are now threatening the debt could jeopardize future business with the county.
The biggest outstanding account is for the department’s body cameras. Last fall, Sheriff Eric Higgins touted the cameras as a push for transparency.
“You’re always being recorded and I think it’s vitally important that we record our deputies as well,” Higgins said during a press conference in November 2019.
However, there’s another picture the cameras can’t capture and the department isn’t showing, all of the unpaid bills.
In 2019 the sheriff’s office inked a deal with Axon, a company that specializes in tech for law enforcement. The agreement included body and dash cams, along with tasers, and other related equipment. According to the deal, over five years the department will pay $4 million.
The sheriff’s office got what it ordered, but county records show Axon never got its first check.
We obtained copies of six invoices that date back to February of 2019 and total just over $1.2 million.
Axon sent the department multiple emails asking for payment and most listed all of the overdue balances. To date, County Comptroller Mike Hutchens says the county hasn’t sent those checks.
“This is kind of new for us, usually everyone pays their bills and we don’t have an issue,” Hutchens said. “If you owed me 1.2 million dollars, I’d want my money.”
Hutchens says his office has to write every check that comes out of a department’s budget, something he says his office can only do when it gets an invoice from a department.
“There’s nothing I can do to pay that bill until I get the invoice from that department. My hands are tied in a way,” Hutchens explained.
He claims the Sheriff’s Office isn’t holding up its end of the bargain with Axon. Per the agreement for the first year, the department would pay about half the costs through a federal grant and the rest would come from the department budget.
“We have not received any invoice from the Sheriff’s Office to be able to pay that,” Hutchens said.
Emails show mixed messages from the sheriff’s office. One was a memo saying the grant money wasn’t available until April, a delay that was never mentioned in the initial contract. Another email talks about how the department didn’t have enough funds to pay the balance.
An email we obtained shows that Axon threatened to put a hold on the account, something another email says happened in June.
“I’m concerned as to why the bills haven’t been paid,” said Pulaski County Justice of the Peace Donna Massey.
Massey sits on the Quorum Court and oversees the county’s budget committee. She says when the sheriff’s office asked about buying body cameras, the court greenlighted the project.
“To my understanding, there were funds available for the cameras so I don’t know why that hasn’t been paid,” she said.
While Axon is the largest unpaid bill, it’s not the only one.
We uncovered a paper trail showing in the past six months the sheriff’s office let invoices to at least eight other companies go unpaid, adding up to almost $200,000 dollars.
One of those companies is an industrial supplier, Grainger. A bill it sent to the county lists 88 overdue invoices, totaling about $17,000.
“We’ve had several businesses contact the purchasing department saying the account will be canceled if the sheriff’s office does not pay their bills,” Hutchens said.
He says his office warned Sheriff Higgins and his staff, in one email a county employee wrote that outstanding invoices, “reflect negatively on Pulaski County, as a whole, and may result in accounts being frozen.”
We tried to ask Sheriff Higgins about these bills, but he declined an interview. A spokesperson told us that the Axon invoices have been paid, and they weren’t supposed to be paid until this year per a verbal agreement Sheriff Higgins made with the company. As for the other overdue bills, we’re told the sheriff’s office still needs to look into those.
“I am anxious to find out what’s going,” Massey said.
Massey maintains the Quorum Court hasn’t been told about any late payments involving the sheriff’s office.
“It is a concern because I hadn’t heard anything about it until you told me,” Massey added.
While she now wants answers, Massey says this may not fall under the court’s control.
“The sheriff being an elected position, we can’t control what he does,” she said.
Massey explained that ultimately spending falls on the sheriff, as long as he stays on budget.
“We don’t get involved unless its’ something that’s going to be a budgetary issue where we’ll have to appropriate money, at that point, major questions will be asked,” Massey said.
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Hutchens.
“It all falls back to him [sheriff], he’s that elected official,” Hutchens said.
Since we started asking questions, we learned the financial director for the sheriff’s office resigned last week. A spokesperson told us it was related to the unsettled accounts.
The Sherriff’s Office gave us this statement:
We regret that this has occurred and regardless of what the circumstances that caused these slow payments, we will definitely make sure this is not a future occurrence. These accounts are being paid with taxpayer dollars and the Sheriff is adamant about maintaining a high level of integrity with this agency, which is the reason for the body cameras. Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office
A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office maintains the outstanding balances with Axon have been settled and the account was never on hold.
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