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Commissioners blast sheriff over county building theft

October 29, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The thief who stole an unreleased amount of cash from the county's Tax Department earlier this week apparently has become a pawn between the Berkeley County Commission and Sheriff Randy Smith.

The commissioners are blaming lax security for the theft, but Smith said commissioners refused more than a year ago to install security cameras and a larger vault in the building.

At their meeting Thursday morning, Commissioners Howard Strauss and Steve Teufel demanded that new procedures be implemented in the county's Tax Department after a "significant amount" of taxpayers' money was stolen.

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Neither Smith nor the commissioners would release the amount of money stolen. Officers with the Martinsburg Police Department, who are handling the burglary investigation because the building is within the city's limits, also have refused to release the figure.

Although it was not listed on the meeting's agenda, the commissioners voted to discuss the theft as an "emergency" item. They did so without inviting Smith or his chief tax deputy, Barb Burkhart, to attend the meeting.

Strauss said it is the sheriff's job to safeguard taxpayers' money.

"I would consider the actions of the sheriff reckless," Strauss said.

Smith responded later Thursday that he ensures money is safe during the day by stationing bailiffs in the building. After closing time, security is turned over to the county commissioners, he said.

Officials have said the theft happened sometime Monday night or Tuesday morning, before a part-time employee arrived for work at 8 a.m.

"Am I going to be responsible for security after hours?" Smith asked.

The building is equipped with an alarm system, but it did not go off, Smith said.

Along with wondering why an alarm did not sound, Strauss said he also has several other questions, including whether the money is bonded and whether any personal checks were stolen.

The commissioners voted 2-0 to send a letter to Smith asking how he plans to address the problems. They also voted 2-0 to send a letter to all department heads that collect money, telling them that all money must be dropped off at the Tax Department by the end of the day to be deposited.

Strauss said he talked to two department heads, whom he would not name, who said they have been told not to drop off money at the Tax Department because employees there were too busy to take it.

Commissioner John Wright did not attend the meeting and Commissioner-elect Ron Collins sat silently throughout the discussion.

Strauss also claimed that money is left unattended on the desks of Tax Department employees, an allegation four incensed employees vehemently denied.

"Money is never unattended. Never has been and never will be," Burkhart said.

Burkhart and three other employees of the department said they all feel like they're caught between Smith and Strauss, who have publicly quarreled several times since both were elected four years ago.

When she learned of the comments made by Strauss - including a comment that leaving money unattended amounted to "sheer laziness" - Burkhart said she was angry and upset.

"We have never been made to feel so belittled," she said.

The four employees commended Smith. Tax Deputy Staci Arnold said Smith is caring, considerate and the best boss she has ever had.

The four employees, who have a combined 35 years of experience in the office, said that Strauss never has been into their office other than to pay his taxes and to drop off floor plans for a new office.

The Tax Department will be moved two blocks away to the Dunn Building, part of the former Blue Ridge Outlet Center. Although the move was planned to take place next March or April, Teufel said it now could be later.

Any problems need to be addressed before the move, he said.

No arrests have been made in the theft. The cash was taken from small safes which are equipped with a key pad locking system that are on the floor at tellers' workstations.

The thief tried to get into a larger waist-high safe but was unsuccessful, police said.

Although Smith said he believes the theft is nothing more complicated than it seems, he said he does not believe the aftermath is simple.

Four days remain until the election, when Smith will find out whether he will be re-elected. Smith is a Democrat; both of the county commissioners are Republicans.

"Howard Strauss has made it into a political event and an agenda," Smith said.

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