A county audit of the Howard County Police Department published this month found that the department did not consistently bill private businesses, most notably the popular concert venue Merriweather Post Pavilion, for overtime shifts officers worked to provide security at events.
The department spent $3.8 million between 2013 and 2016 on unreimbursed overtime and related costs for special events at Merriweather and elsewhere that was not reimbursed, according to the audit. The department bills for its services under the Uniform Services Police Detail Program, but according to the audit, it was "inconsistent" in seeking reimbursement for its services from private entities. It currently does not bill Merriweather Post Pavilion for services such as traffic control surrounding the venue, but does bill the Mall in Columbia for contractual services inside its building.
"The county should not be providing private entities with free policing," said county auditor Craig Glendenning, whose office conducted the audit. "I would think that Merriweather, if they have to tack on an extra few dollars to ticket prices [for security], then it's kind of a user fee at that point. Why should all of Howard County residents have to pay their taxes to provide policing at Merriweather?"
Officials from Merriweather Post could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Other examples of special events where police provide services can include proms and sporting events, according to Howard County Police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.
The audit looked at overtime and other non-regular payments made by the Howard police department and whether those payments were accurate. Auditors also evaluated how much overtime police employees worked and if it was properly approved, and if the department had policies in place to control overtime and recover costs when needed.
Glendenning said he decided to have his office conduct the audit after hearing presentations Police Chief Gary Gardner made to the county's Spending Affordability Committee regarding how much the department was spending on overtime costs for private events.
Stanley Milesky, director of the county's Department of Finance, said that while his department is responsible for ensuring that bills for police services at private events get paid, the police department determines which entities to bill for its resources.
Milesky said that the finance department had already been aware of the need to enhance its miscellaneous billing system, which includes reimbursement for private events services, prior to the release of the audit report. The department has added two full-time staff members to take on these efforts, and to help implement a more systematic structure to ensure these bills are paid in a timely manner.
Overtime costs as a whole make up a significant portion of the police department's annual spending. In 2016 the department's expenditure total was $106 million, with overtime costs making up almost 7 percent of that at $7.3 million. More than 80 percent of police employees sought overtime pay between June 2015 and June 2016, according to the audit report.
The audit included five recommendations for the county administration and the police department for ways to improve their practices related to billing and overtime costs.
One of the recommendations was to develop legislation related to recovering costs for services provided at private events. The administration agreed with the recommendation and stated in the audit report that it plans to propose a permit and fee structure to the County Council this fall.
Llewellyn said officials have been assisting county administrators in drafting legislation that would formalize that process. County Executive Allan Kittleman said he expects to be able to present the proposed legislation in late August or September, and said the bill will help to find the "most equitable" solution for different groups that need police services in the county.
The administration and department concurred with all but one of the audit recommendations. The administration instead only "acknowledged" the recommendation for the police department to develop a policy to stipulate how overtime is allocated and assigned, and to track cumulative overtime worked by employees.
Glendenning said his office and the administration went back and forth on this issue, and that the "acknowledgment" means that the county is not committing to any specific actions, although administrators did say in their response in the report that they are "exploring" an electronic time and attendance program that would assist in tracking cumulative overtime. The response did not include comment on an overtime allocation policy.
Other recommendations from the audit included revising an agreement between the police department and the county's Board of Education to require that the board reimburse the county for wage-related taxes, such as Social Security and Medicaid, when the board hires officers for security at events, such as high school proms. All other Uniform Services Police Detail Program agreements with the department do include this stipulation, according to the report.
The board currently pays officers their normal overtime rate, but does not include reimbursement for these taxes, which last year totaled $11,100 that the county then had to pay. The report stated that the board will work with the police department to revise their agreement so that the county is reimbursed for these costs.
This story has been updated.