Clayton County sheriff under fire for spending $3 million on take-home EVs amid budget shortfall

It's a new and expensive way to recruit and retain detention officers, and two metro Atlanta sheriffs are doing it.

Both the DeKalb and Clayton County sheriffs spent millions of dollars on fleets of electric vehicles. Not to move prisoners or search for criminals, but as a job perk, so employees can commute to and from work.

"I had to find a way to get all of my positions filled, so one of the things I thought about was incentivizing the employees," Clayton County Sheriff Levon Allen told the FOX 5 I-Team. "And it worked. In six months’ time, we were able to become fully staffed and went from 40% to 100%."

But Allen has come under political fire over his EV fleet. Among the criticisms: The Clayton County government doesn't have charging stations. And residents have spotted some of the cars sitting idle in a back parking lot, gathering dust and still bearing dealer tags. Also, the sheriff has made repeated requests to the Board of Commissioners for millions of dollars above and beyond his $44.3 million budget, which makes up 15% of the county’s general fund budget.

The FOX 5 I-Team counted 10 electric cars in a parking lot behind the jail that still bear dealer tags. (FOX 5)

Allen, who succeeded his godfather and onetime mentor Victor Hill, faces a runoff election Tuesday, and his $3 million purchase of 99 cars – all 2023 Chevrolet Bolts – has come up on the campaign trail. He’s running against the head of the panel that controls county purse strings: Commission Chairman Jeff Turner, the county’s former police chief.

"Some of the decisions … haven't been the best decisions for the sheriff's department nor the citizens of Clayton County, because it's going over budget," Turner said.

Among the sheriff’s requests, all granted by the commission: $3.6 million for lock repairs; $3 million for jail repairs; $2.3 million for tasers, body cameras, washers and dryers, security upgrades and other supplies; $2.1 million for 33 more deputies; and $275,000 for protective gear.

The list goes on. In April the sheriff asked the county for almost $15 million in emergency funds to pay workers, then sought another $1.6 million this month to plug a budget shortfall. 

By his own accounting, in all, the sheriff said he’s asked the county for "probably about an extra $33 million."

Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner seeks to unseat Sheriff Levon Allen, facing him in a runoff election Tuesday. (FOX 5)

"There's no money, no hole or bag of money, that we can just reach in to constantly keep on amending the sheriff's budget," Turner said.

Allen’s use of taxpayer funds for the Chevy Bolts last year has rankled some county residents.

"A waste of money, and it seems to be an ongoing thing with the sheriff's department," concerned taxpayer Orlando Gooden told the I-Team. "They ask for money all the time without any accountability, and that's the issue that the public is having. Because it's not their money, it's our money."

Clayton County taxpayer Orlando Gooden called the sheriff's purchase of EVs "a waste of money." (FOX 5)

Despite the imminent runoff, Allen hasn’t ducked the controversy, addressing it in an interview with the FOX 5 I-Team.

"They’re so against change and so against moving to the future that they want to make something positive a negative," Allen said of his critics. "They ought to be ashamed of themselves."

Sheriff Levon Allen, seen here with one of the 99 electric vehicles he purchased for employees, says those criticizing the move "ought to be ashamed of themselves." (FOX 5)

The sheriff said he took inspiration from DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox, who last year started leasing 100 Chevy Bolts as take-home vehicles for detention officers.

Allen assigns his EVs to clerks, too.

There’s another big difference with DeKalb’s EV program. Sheriff Maddox not only has a budget more than twice the size of Allen's, but also 16 charging stations.

Sheriff Levon Allen told the FOX 5 I-Team he'll ask for money for charging stations in his next annual budget. (FOX 5)

"There's no infrastructure in place for electric vehicles to be charged while at work," Chairman Turner said. "And if we're going to make that kind of purchase at the amount of money that he purchased them at, we need to make sure that they are fully equipped."

Sheriff Allen says that, for now, employees with the Chevy Bolts can charge them by plugging into a wall at home, or by finding other charging stations in the area.

Two 2023 Chevrolet Bolts, purchased by the sheriff's office as take-home vehicles for employees, sit in a parking lot behind the jail. The I-Team counted 10 cars that still bear dealer tags. (FOX 5)

"We have the cars now and the charging stations are coming within the next budget," he said. "It’s very simple."

An electric vehicle expert said that for such a large employee fleet, charging stations at work would be ideal. But then, a 2023 Bolt gets 259 miles per charge, he said.

"I would say if you lived 60 miles, even, from your workplace, you would not have a problem getting back home," said Rich Simmons, principal research engineer for the Georgia Tech Strategic Energy Institute.

The I-Team asked the sheriff's office for an accounting of all employees who've been assigned the Bolts.

Allen showed the I-Team how that record is kept, written on a dry erase board with car numbers and last names, which the commission chairman called "inexcusable."

Sheriff Levon Allen shows the I-Team a dry erase board with car numbers and last names, which is how his office keeps up with which employees have which EV take-home vehicles. (FOX 5)

"Now what if somebody goes in there and erases the whole thing?" Turner said. "Where is the backup for that?"

Another sticking point: a year later, some of Allen’s EVs still sit in a back parking lot with dealer tags. Turner alleged that he saw 30 to 40 cars sitting idle at one time. In early June, the I-Team counted 10, which matches the number shown as "not assigned" on the dry erase board.

"It's irresponsible, especially when using taxpayers' money, to have vehicles sitting in the back lot," Turner said.

But Sheriff Allen blames the county government for the unused cars, saying he had an arrangement with the chief operating officer to set aside 25 EVs for other county departments to use in a pilot program. Allen said the county never picked up the cars, but he retrieved the keys from the county after Turner brought the unused cars up during a candidate forum in March.

While emails show Clayton County Sheriff Levon Allen and the county's chief operating officer did discuss the county using 25 of the sheriff's EV cars for a pilot program, commission Chairman Jeff Turner says the sheriff approached the county with th

The I-Team reviewed internal emails showing a discussion between Sheriff Allen and the COO about the county using 25 cars. What's in dispute, though, is who approached who with the idea and whether the county meant for the sheriff to immediately set the cars aside and not put them to use himself.

"He may have approached (the COO) after he got the vehicles and all the heat was coming down," Turner said.

Simmons, of Georgia Tech, said leaving an EV outside for a year could damage its battery.

Clayton County Sheriff Levon Allen and commission Chairman Jeff Turner, who is the county's former police chief, face off in a runoff election for sheriff on Tuesday. (FOX 5)

"There is a point where that battery could just basically lose its stored energy, and they need their systems operating to ensure that the battery states of charge stay within the preferred zone for optimal lifespan and efficiency," Simmons said. "We see that with our phones and with our power drills and things that have a rechargeable battery."        

Asked if possible battery damage concerned him, the sheriff said, "I wasn’t worried because I didn’t know about it."

Allen said he didn’t realize the cars had been sitting unused for so long because they sat tucked alongside other employees' vehicles in the parking lot connected to the jail and courthouse.