June 10, 2013

Murray court finds $300,000

Murray Magistrate Court continues work

Rachel Brown

— Murray County officials are still working to account for an extra $300,000 sitting in the Magistrate Court’s bank account for no immediately apparent reason.

Chief Magistrate L. Gale Buckner said she believes the additional money should have been paid to various beneficiaries, but sorting out all the details will likely be a lengthy process. She said she anticipates knowing more within a few weeks.

Buckner, who was appointed to the position last November after former chief magistrate Bryant Cochran resigned under scrutiny for several alleged ethics issues, said she learned shortly after taking office that the magistrate office had an unexplained large amount of money in a bank account.

The average monthly amount in the account for about the past year before she took office was between $250,000 and $300,000, she said. By comparison, she said, the average monthly amount in the comparable office in Whitfield County, where the population is more than double Murray’s, is about $100,000. The average in counties Murray’s size is between $40,000 and $50,000, she said.

Buckner said she plans to ask the county’s independent auditor, R.M. Dobbs and Co. of Calhoun, to conduct an audit solely to find out where the money belongs once the company is finished completing the general audit for all county departments. She said the additional work will not be an overall audit of the office but will focus only on finding where the extra money belongs. County Finance Director Tommy Parker said state law requires a general audit for the county every year, and he expects this one to be complete by June 30.

“We would be involved in funding (the additional work for Magistrate Court), so that would be something that would be discussed,” Parker said. “That decision has not been made, although it wouldn’t be a huge formality to make that decision.”

Magistrate Court on the move

Officials are also hoping to move the cramped Magistrate Court offices to the old portion of the Murray County jail once the sheriff’s office moves operations to the new portion. Parker said the sheriff’s office is completing some employee training and other preparations before the move, which is expected to happen within a month or two.

“We’re getting some numbers together on what it would take to get a few minor refurbishments done,” said Sole Commissioner Brittany Pittman. “I’ve spoken with two architects, and I’ve got to get one more.”

Buckner said Magistrate Court workers are cleaning up a number of other issues as well, including going back through records, some dating back to the 1980s, that may not have been properly disposed of, though not necessarily for “nefarious” reasons, she added.

“That is taking a good deal of time to do that and to do it right, but we think we’ll have that handled in the next couple of months as well,” Buckner said. “We have one person who is solely dedicated to that job.”

Magistrate Court now holds bond and first appearance hearings five times a week instead of four to allow people who are granted bonds the opportunity to get out of jail sooner. The office has also begun using a new warrant system that allows officers to access information electronically.