Augusta FOIA Nightmares: Sheriff Slams County Growth Amidst Challenges Managing Department's Payroll
Written by: Sam Orlando
AUGUSTA COUNTY, VIRGINIA - Breaking Through News recently learned from a county employee that Augusta County typically will add the words "NO FOIA" to the subject line of emails they want to hide from public disclosure. This employee, who we are not identifying by name out of concern for their safety, explained that employees were taught to use the "NO FOIA" tag in their email for emails they "don't want getting out".
After hearing that report, Breaking Through submitted a FOIA request, designed to illuminate select "No FOIA" marked records.
We unearthed revelations that demand public attention. Augusta County identified an astonishing 1,212 emails in response to our request, with 140 emails and two attachments eventually shared.
That means the county withheld over 1,000 emails marked "NO FOIA", with a litany of different exemptions cited. Breaking Through's editorial team is consulting with legal counsel about next steps to insure you, the people, have the truth from your leaders.
The nature and content of the documents that were released have inspired a series titled "Augusta FOIA Nightmares." Our inaugural piece tackles concerns surrounding police salaries, especially when juxtaposed against the county's per capita income.
The Sheriff's "Secret" Letter
Within the trove of documents was an October, 2021 letter authored by Sheriff Donald Smith to the Augusta County Board of Supervisors—a message he clearly wanted to be kept under wraps. The Sheriff admonished the Board of Supervisors for greenlighting higher-paying jobs in Augusta County. According to Smith, these economic advancements made retaining deputies an uphill battle. This sentiment is puzzling, considering individuals with police training typically gravitate towards law enforcement roles.
Comparing Salaries: Deputies vs. Residents
To provide some context: in 2022, the U.S. Census reported the per capita income of Augusta County residents, over the past 12 months and adjusted for 2021 dollars, was $32,461. Records related to what government employees earn is a matter of public record, and in our FOIA trove was an analysis of deputy salaries. This figure is illuminating when you consider that as of 10/1/2020, the highest earner, Sheriff Donald Lee Smith, had a salary of $106,923. Meanwhile, on the lower spectrum, Deputy Jennifer Acker earned $32,338—just shy of the county's average per capita income. Another record revealed Deputy Shauna Lynn Garasimowicz had an initial salary of $34,552, which is slightly above the county average.
After a uniform 3% raise in July 2021, there were salary discrepancies that stood out further. For example, Deputy Leslie Koogler Snyder witnessed her pay jump from $61,394 to $69,010, which is more than twice the county's per capita income. For those of you good at math, you might also notice that Snyder's salary increase is significantly more than the 3% uniform raise in 2021.
The Sheriff and Brian Jenkins, the Sheriff's second in command, round out the top of the salary list, with Jenkins earning a cool $93,676. Third place goes to the controversial Deputy Michael Roane, who had been accused of killing a citizen's dog while at her home on a service call. Roane pulls in nearly $73,000... and he gets an OT rate of $52.58 per hour!
Overtime Concerns: A Safety and Financial Conundrum
Overtime rates, primarily at 1.5x the regular hourly rate, appear standard. Yet, Sheriff Smith's policy on overtime draws concern. Deputies earn double time for everything worked over 48 hours weekly, according to an email from Sheriff Smith. For Deputy Roane, that would make his Overtime rate of pay $70.10. While a commendable benefit for deputies, it poses questions about fiscal responsibility and its ripple effect on public safety.
Proper staffing could see the same funds providing double the deputy hours. Could overtime be offered more as an enticing benefit than out of operational necessity? Or is the Sheriff unable to keep employees? Both allegations were made by the county employee who reported the 'NO FOIA" phenomena plaguing county emails... that the sheriff was hiding his mismanagement of payroll and other issues by marking his emails as 'NO FOIA", taking them off the table for disclosure.
Our FOIA request proves, that at least 142 times, the Sheriff or County employee got the FOIA exempt analysis dead wrong. Breaking Through does plan to challenge the county's withholding of over 1,000 similarly marked emails in the Augusta County Circuit Court.
Payroll Challenges vs. County Growth
Sheriff Smith's confidential letter, paired with the perplexing payroll figures and generous overtime policies, sketches a troubling scenario. It depicts a pressure on the board to suppress county economic growth while internal payroll issues plague the Sheriff's Office. And all this in a backdrop where all but one deputy's earnings hover around, and most greatly surpass, the average income of the very residents they serve.
Supporting law enforcement is in the DNA of our rural community, but so is accountability and fiscal responsibility. Whether Sheriff Smith needs to change his policies or get some help managing his staff, Augusta County must have enough deputies to serve the community's needs, and those deputies must have some option for time off and a high quality of life.
Breaking Through News remains steadfast in its mission to unravel the truth, champion transparency, and ensure Augusta County's growth and public safety aren't compromised by possible internal inefficiencies within one or more county offices.