Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker told county legislators this week that a recent audit of the COMBAT showed significant past problems but said it’s time to turn the page and continue to improve the program that’s been under her control for a little more than a year.
“COMBAT is one of the best programs that Jackson County has,” County Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City, said Monday.
The program’s director, Vince Ortega, was more emphatic.
“COMBAT has and does save lives,” he said.
The program – the name is derived from Community-Based Anti-drug Tax – funds a variety of anti-drug and anti-violence efforts, everything from the county’s Drug Task Force to substance-abuse treatment to the salaries of prosecutors who put violent drug offenders and others behind bars. Voters have repeatedly reapproved the quarter-cent sales tax that pays for all this.
Baker ordered an audit shortly after being given control of the program. That audit, by the CPA firm BKD, found COMBAT money going for salaries for people not clearly connected to the program, found that some spending wasn’t going through the COMBAT officials and found a pattern of the county executive projecting low COMBAT revenues – generating a windfall later that the executive would spend in a variety of areas. That was during the time County Executive Frank White Jr. and his predecessor, Mike Sanders, controlled the program.
White’s office took exception to those findings – more of that played out Monday – but BKD rechecked its facts and figures and said it firmly stands by its report, as does Baker.
Baker also noted that State Auditor Nicole Galloway continues her audit of Jackson County, including COMBAT.
“I don’t know what that audit will say,” she said, adding that she won’t be surprised if it’s also critical of the program. Baker did predict that Galloway will be attacked – unfairly, she said – just as White’s office attacked Baker’s office over the BKD report.
“Critique is OK,” Baker said. “All of us should be able to handle critique.”
Legislators and White also embraced Baker’s “turn the page” language, but White’s chief of staff nonetheless made a presentation detailing what he characterized as “numerous inaccuracies, omissions and misleading statements” in the BKD report. He urgently suggested that legislators bring in BKD to ask questions, and he pointed to a long list of officials BKD did not talk to.
Baker said that wasn’t BKD’s charge.
“The scope of this report is right there in front of you,” she told legislators.
Clifford again stressed that BKD listed COMBAT’s 2018 revenues at $26.37 million when in fact they were $24.63 million. Baker pointed out again that BKD got that figure and others from the county executive’s office.
“That’s a concerning error,” she said, adding that she’s still looking into it.
Clifford also stressed that COMBAT spending is approved by the County Legislature and said the BKD report overlooked that more than $1 million in COMBAT money was spent to renovate the MyArts building just off the Square in Independence, a building the county then sold to the Independence School District for $10.
The BKD report says COMBAT has lacked the staff to adequately monitor the more than 90 outside agencies that get COMBAT funding. Ortega said the county is hiring three community engagement program monitors to step up that effort. Baker said those agencies will need to be ready for more questions and closer scrutiny.
After Clifford’s presentation, White said he agreed it’s time to turn the page, though he added, “I think a lot of shade has been thrown in a lot of directions for a long time.”
Legislator Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs, also weighed in.
“This whole thing,” she said, “just blows my mind because those are taxpayer dollars.”