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"That just did not jive with me," Davis said.
Davis said Barnes points out frequently that the Sheriff's Department controls that fund, but Davis added that, when it comes to spending money from the fund, it takes two to tango – the sheriff and the Board of Commissioners.
"He can make an appeal to the commissioners, but we have rights also when it comes to that fund," Davis said.
Davis added that, even though the money doesn't come from tax revenues, it could lessen the tax burden on county citizens.
Barnes said he already frequently uses the fund to help keep the cost of his department's budget down. For instance, the sheriff said, he used money from the fund to pay for a district office, and he said this week that the Segways, too, were a legitimate use of the fund and the purchase of the Segways would have meant a real increase in school safety.
Barnes added that any request to use the fund must come from the Sheriff's Department; it cannot come from the Board of Commissioners.
Payne concurred. "The sheriff must bring the request forward and the Board of Commissioners must approve it before the funds may be used," he said.
The new debate over the forfeiture fund has some interesting parallels with a similar debate that raged nearly a decade ago. At that time, the dispute was over the county's inmate welfare fund – another fund Barnes used for a wide variety of non-budgeted items.
Money for that fund comes from charging inmates' friends and families for collect phone calls that inmates make from jail, as well as from money the inmates spend on buying toiletries, candy and other items for sale in the jails.
The inmate welfare fund was set up by the previous sheriff, Democrat Walter "Sticky" Burch, with the intention that the money be used to enhance the lives of county inmates – for instance, to purchase books for the jail libraries, bring speakers to the jail, or for other things that would enhance inmate welfare.
However, over the years, Barnes got more and more creative with that fund. He used the money to buy everything from drug-sniffing dogs for the jail to shock belts for the inmates.
Barnes argued that inmates benefited from a drug-free jail and, he said at the time, if jail guards had the belts to shock inmates into submission those guards would have less need to beat the inmates.
Barnes even attempted to use money in the fund to build a golf course and a driving range at the Guilford County
Prison Farm near Gibsonville, using the argument that the golf course and range could be used to teach the inmates grounds keeping skills, which could help make them more likely to get a job when they got out.
Due to the debate over such unusual uses of the inmate welfare fund, the commissioners began to look into exactly what that fund could and couldn't be used for – and they were delighted to learn from The Rhino Times that the money was part of the county's general fund and the board could therefore use that money for any county purpose.
Ever since then, the commissioners have periodically raided the inmate welfare fund to pay for a wide variety of things – though the board's use of the fund has almost always been tied somewhat to law enforcement purposes. Now some commissioners want to know if they can put the federal forfeiture funds to use to offset budget costs.
Barnes said that, when it comes to the federal forfeiture fund, there won't be a repeat of what happened with the inmate welfare fund.
"The difference between the inmate welfare fund and the federal forfeiture fund is that the federal forfeiture fund is not part of the general fund," Barnes said.
Barnes also said the commissioners need to be aware that, if federal authorities determine that Guilford County
has spent any money from the fund on unacceptable purposes, the feds have the right to demand repayment from the county – retroactive all the way back to the start of the federal forfeiture program.
"They can make the county pay every bit back going back to 1985," Barnes said.
Barnes said he doesn't know exactly how large that amount would be, but he said he's currently researching that number so that the commissioners will understand what kind of penalty they're facing if they spend the money improperly.
Barnes said that, since 1985, many millions of dollars have been spent from the fund.
Of course, the chances of that happening are probably much less than the chances of the commissioners being struck by lightening on the way home from a meeting on a cloudless night.
When Barnes was asked in an email if he knew of any instance where the federal authorities had taken back funds from a law enforcement agency going back to 1985 he responded, "No, not from us, but they have cautioned us on some uses which we did not do because of their warning."