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McHenry County Board approves cost controls on government surplus purchases

H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com 
McHenry County Sheriff's MRAP vehicle maneuvers down Sunset Drive in Holiday Hills on Thursday, Oct. 16 after two McHenry County Sheriff's deputies were shot.
H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com McHenry County Sheriff's MRAP vehicle maneuvers down Sunset Drive in Holiday Hills on Thursday, Oct. 16 after two McHenry County Sheriff's deputies were shot.

WOODSTOCK – Free military surplus isn't always free, as far as county government is concerned.

A new provision of the McHenry County Board’s policy for developing its budget requires board approval if any department wants to acquire government surplus that will result in additional costs for fuel, insurance, storage or training, or if employee costs are incurred to retrieve it. The change was one of about a dozen to the County Board’s budget policy that members approved Tuesday evening on a 19-1 vote.

The proposal came from Associate County Administrator for Finance Ralph Sarbaugh, who has expressed concern that “free” surplus under a federal program that funnels it to local law enforcement can come with significant associated costs, especially when it comes to vehicles. The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office has acquired millions of dollars worth of surplus, for itself and for other county government departments, under the federal Law Enforcement Support Office program, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Existing policy requires any purchase greater than $20,000 by a county government department to go before the County Board for approval, even if the expense is included in the budget. But almost all surplus falls far below that threshold, according to sheriff’s office records. The sheriff’s office recently acquired a $733,000 armor-plated Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle for about $1,975, a $60,409 armored Humvee for $1,554, and for just under $370 acquired a Humvee weather station valued at $975,000 for the county Emergency Management Agency.

County Administrator Peter Austin said he had already told departments reporting to him prior to Tuesday's vote that they would have to check with his office before acquiring such surplus. The sheriff’s office, like other offices run by officials elected by county voters, does not, although the County Board has the final say over their budgets.

The Northwest Herald began examining the federal surplus program after the sheriff’s department acquired its MRAP this summer, shortly before police handling of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, renewed the debate over whether easy access to military surplus weapons and vehicles is contributing to what critics call the “militarization” of America’s police forces.

The MRAP, which replaced the sheriff’s office’s 28-year-old armored vehicle acquired through the same program, saw action for the first time last Thursday when sheriff’s deputies, assisted by numerous other police departments, searched for a Holiday Hills man accused of wounding two deputies responding to a domestic dispute at his home.

Combat vehicles make up only part of the list of vehicles various county departments have acquired under the surplus program.

A May 2014 draft report by the sheriff’s office includes the acquisition of three all-terrain vehicles, a Kawasaki mule, four motorcycles and a small truck for its own use. Besides the Humvee for emergency management, it also acquired a semi truck for the division of transportation, two vans for the building department, and three motorcycles for the McHenry County Conservation District.

But such acquisitions concerned Sarbaugh, who is tasked with balancing and maintaining an ever-tightening county budget. Costs come with converting the vehicles from battlefield to local government use, as well as with maintaining and insuring them. While the sheriff’s office and transportation have their own garages and vehicle budgets, others do not – the emergency management agency had to submit a supplemental funding request to perform necessary work on the Humvee. The agency has been getting rid of unneeded and obsolete vehicles, but got the Humvee so it can help tow the department’s command trailers and emergency generators.

County Board member Yvonne Barnes, R-Cary, cast the sole opposing vote to approving the budget policy. Her vote was based on other concerns over the budget process, and not the new provision putting a check on government surplus.

At least one other local government has also taken steps to rein in the acquisition of military surplus for similar reasons.

Spring Grove is now requiring its police department to first clear any request for surplus through the village board’s Safety Committee, Village President Mark Eisenberg said in a Wednesday email. Federal records obtained through FOIA revealed that the small police department for the town of 5,800 in recent years has acquired an MRAP, as well as two dump trucks, an all-terrain vehicle, three Kawasaki Mules, a tractor, a forklift, a cargo trailer, a forklift trailer and a trailer-mounted military field kitchen.

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