Each year, Harrison County government takes about $1 million of taxpayers' dollars and tucks it away into its "escrow account." Then it goes shopping, buying thousands of dollars worth of doo-dads, knickknacks, playthings and yum-yums of every descrip- tion.
The escrow account, the Board of Supervisors says, is for the many expenses that pop up in the course of a budget year, expenses it can't plan for when it sets the county's $100 million budget.
But a study of five years' worth of escrow account spending also raises the question: Is anyone minding the store? Much of the list of thousands of purchases --- totaling more than $4.5 million over five years --- looks like a shopping spree. Mixed in with spending on PVC pipe and wood screws are purchases of expensive furniture and footwear, Hot Wheels toy cars, jump ropes, beach bags, water guns and groceries.
It might come as a surprise to taxpayers that they bought more than $19,000 worth of beads and trinkets for county officials and guests to throw from floats during Mardi Gras 2000. Or that in the name of advertising the county, officials last year bought $1,487 worth of deluxe screen-printed umbrellas to give away, after having purchased $4,100 worth of umbrellas only one year earlier.
County officials had unexpected expenses last year of nearly $39,000 for furniture to refurbish or redecorate their offices. This included a leather sofa, a leather recliner and a $1,200 Broyhill British armoire.
Escrow spending on candy for the year topped $640, including $219 worth of Tootsie Rolls.
The government tab for cheerleader pom-pons for a peewee football league came to $1,890, part of $81,000 in sporting goods purchases from escrow for various leagues last year.
Taxpayers shelled out $898 for plastic Easter eggs in 1999-2000, another $1,200 for Easter baskets and more than $1,300 for ceramic figurines and arts-and-crafts supplies.
County supervisors say escrow spending is justified and aboveboard. Each year, tens of thousands of dollars from theaccount go to support youth sports, senior citizens' programs, churches, charities, schools and civic clubs.
The account is frequently used for emergency road work and to buy construction materials, cars and equipment when money in other accounts runs short. Harrison County also gives money from the escrow account to Coast cities to help build, improve and maintain parks, ball fields and other facilities.
"No, the escrow account is not a slush fund," said Larry Benefield, president of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors. "Everything we do with that account, whether for the children or seniors, is based on the needs of this county and its citizens. . . . When I first became a supervisor, I had heard the county was spending money on all sorts of things, TVs even. I marched in and pulled the records and went to check it out, thinking I'll put a stop to this.
"But then I went to a senior citizens' center, where the TV had gone, and saw more than 20 people who didn't have anywhere else to go watching that TV . . . You might see some big-screen TVs in those escrow records. Senior citizens can't see very well, so we provided some big-screen TVs."
Whose money is it?
Supervisors deny that they use money from the escrow account for patronage or to curry favor with any particular organizations or group of voters. But the thousands of tax dollars they hand out to churches, civic clubs, Mardi Grasassociations, special events, youth sports leagues and schools --- both public and private --- from escrow each year certainly doesn't hurt their standing with voters in those groups.
In '99-2000, the county spent at least $200,000 on dozens of such groups, not counting the thousands of dollars worth of sporting goods it bought for sports leagues. The county either made direct donations to the groups or purchased ads in programs, annuals and brochures. The groups or events included the Biloxi Girl's Softball League, the Knights of Columbus, the Slavic Benevolent Association, the Gulf Coast Carnival Association, First Missionary Baptist Church and the 2000 Great Duck Race. The money from escrow used for "advertising county resources" is in addition to the nearly $90,000 the county has budgeted for advertising and promoting the area through the Tourism Commission.
Supervisors also deny that they divide up the loot each year and essentially use escrow as separate accounts for unbudgeted spending in their five districts.
In the late 1980s, Harrison County switched from the "beat system" of county government, in which each supervisor ran his own mini-government and budget, to the "unit system." State law dictates that under the unit system, budgeting and projects operate on a centralized, county-wide basis.
But Supervisor Bobby Eleuterius has described what he calls a "gentleman's agreement" that escrow monies be spent roughly equally in the districts.
"We do try to see that each district is represented as well as possible," Eleuterius said. "I think it's fair that each district gets an equal amount. . . . But there's one escrow account, not five individuals."
Benefield and three of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors were interviewed about the escrow account last week.
Benefield explained that they absolutely do not have individual escrow budgets for their districts. But in the course of the interview, several supervisors referred to "my money," or said "I bought" something or other. Benefield sternly corrected them for the slip-ups.
No one asked in county administration offices could explain how supervisors keep track of spending by district to make sure escrow is equally divided.
"I guess that's something among the supervisors," said County Administrator Pam Ulrich, who is responsible for day-to-day management of the escrow account.
A spokesman for the State Auditor's Office said that while unit system counties are required by law to have centralized spending and budgeting, "a gentleman's agree- ment to divide money would be hard to do anything about."
City governments often reap benefits from escrow spending. Escrow money is given to the cities in Harrison County for road paving, parks work and other projects, or used to supply in-kind services or workers. But city officials appear to think that individual supervisors are responsible for the benevolent sharing of tax dollars among jurisdictions.
"My understanding is, they allocate a certain amount of their budget and then each supervisor has discretionary money to spend within their district," said Biloxi City Councilman Jim Compton. "I'm in Bobby Eleuterius' district. He's helped fund projects. Bobby uses his money. Some of the other supervisors --- basically one that is no longer in office --- just kind of let theirs build up. . . . I've heard the question asked: Should this money be allocated countywide? But If I've got to call not only Bobby but the other four supervisors to tell them what we need, then it becomes more difficult to get things done."
When announcing the start of a joint city-county project, many city leaders thank and praise individual supervisors.
Gulfport Councilman Jimmie Jenkins, for example, was beaming at a meeting in 1996 when he announced that then-Supervisor Robin Alfred Midcalf had "agreed to spend $53,000 from her escrow account" to help the city build a new gymnasium in Gaston Point.
But some city leaders have complained that county supervisors are stingy with their cities and act like they're doing the city a personal favor with escrow money, despite the fact that a vast amount of county tax collections come from people inside cities.
Some city leaders are still not quite sure how the county escrow account works.
"I can think of only one time I've gotten any money from that," said Gulfport Councilman Sam Albritton. "I saw a memo on my desk that said Robin Midcalf was sending money to the city. We put it into Dedeaux Park."
Numerous shopping trips
State purchasing laws govern all county spending, escrow account included. For purchases of more than $1,500, the county must get two written quotes from vendors and take the lowest. For purchases of more than $10,000, the county must advertise for bids and take the lowest that meets specifications. This also would require the Board of Supervisors to approve the spending in a public meeting.
But most escrow purchases tend to fall below these amounts.
For instance, the county didn't buy all of its $19,000-plus of Mardi Gras throws at one whack last year. It bought the trinkets on numerous shopping trips over several months. Some escrow purchases, like one last January of $9,990 worth of "disco ball" Mardi Gras necklaces, fall just shy of state purchasing requirements.
Intentionally dividing purchases to fall under state requirements is an illegal practice that is referred to as "splitting invoices." County leaders deny this is ever done. They point out that the State Auditor's Office monitors county spending and has never complained about the escrow account.
As with a gentleman's agreement on dividing escrow money, the State Auditor's Office said, it's hard to prove that the county intended that shopping trips would be intentionally split.
State auditors would probably not dig deeply into escrow spending, a representative said, unless a citizen filed an official complaint.
Administrator Ulrich said the county often does more than the law requires and gets two quotes for purchases less than $1,500.
Ulrich said she has turned down requests for escrow spending she believed were unjustified, including requests from supervisors.
"If one of the (sports) leagues asks for a $3,000 pitching machine, and we've bought one for another club of the same type for $1,500, then we would question why they need that one," Ulrich said. "I've had requests for a $150 baseball bat, and I've told them I'm not going to buy a $150 bat out of county funds. I'm sure I've probably told (supervisors) 'no' on some items."
Umbrellas for the homeless
But frugality doesn't seem to be the rule for escrow spending.
For instance, taxpayers shelled out $150 to have Sheriff's Department Maj. Randy Cook's county-owned sports utility vehicle cleaned at On The Go Car Wash last May. It was shortly after the vehicle had been reassigned from Supervisor Benefield to Cook when Benefield got a new SUV.
Contacted by telephone, Sparkle Car Cleaning of Gulfport said it would wash, vacuum and wax a Chevy Tahoe for $65 plus tax.
"A car wash?" Benefield said when asked about this expense. "Did someone get their car detailed and washed? . . . The board cannot physically check each item in this account."
Some purchases that might seem extravagant are not, supervisors said. For instance, Supervisor Connie Rockco said the $1,200 British armoire she purchased for her office was needed. She uses it as more of an entertainment center, for her office television and to store videotapes of county doings. The county has to keep up appearances, she said.
"I think we have to have some type of professionalism with what we have," Rockco said.
Eleuterius said that while tossing $19,000 worth of taxpayer-funded Mardi Gras throws might seem a bit overboard, "that's nothing, versus the millions of dollars that Mardi Gras brings here."
Supervisors said that handing out county-embossed umbrellas to visiting dignitaries and convention-goers is a good way to promote the county.
Rockco said that she also recently gave two county umbrellas to homeless people.
Supervisors Benefield, Eleuterius, Rockco and Marlin Ladner during an interview last week were somewhat indignant over questions about escrow spending, and a couple complained about recent Sun Herald articles questioning the use of county-owned vehicles by supervisors and employees.
"We took this job --- I think all of us did --- because we thought we could make a difference," Rockco said. "Then we get beat up on. We don't have any professional to spin the news like other cities, like Vincent Creel (public affairs manager) in Biloxi."
Rockco said she and her fellow board members could be making much more money in private endeavors if they weren't serving in their $37,000-a-year, part-time supervisors' posts. Others agreed.
Only Supervisor William Martin was absent during the interview. Contacted by telephone last week and asked for his views on the escrow account, he said, "I've got a client right now. Can I call you right back?" But he didn't call back.
Supervisors said they never spend the escrow account down to zero. And if faced with a budget crunch, they said, escrowspending would be one of the first areas cut.
Rockco said that after a flood of recent complaints from taxpayers about their higher county tax bills from a reappraisal of property values, she has been in search of areas in the budget to cut and provide a tax break.
"I want to go department-by-department," Rockco said. "I have looked at the escrow account."