Former Tenn. Supreme Court chief justice appointed to hear Sullivan Co. sheriff's lawsuit against county

J. H. Osborne • Sep 21, 2012 at 5:45 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary R. Wade has assigned Judge James E. Beckner to hear the case of Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson v. Steve Godsey, mayor of Sullivan County.

An order doing so, signed by Wade on Tuesday, was filed Thursday with the Sullivan County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.

Beckner retired from the bench in Hawkins County after serving more than 30 years.

Anderson is seeking $9.9 million in new funding from Sullivan County — which he says is the amount he needs to adequately fund the county jail and sheriff’s office as he is charged to do by state law. The lawsuit was filed in Sullivan County Circuit Court on Aug. 27.

That same day, an order of recusal was filed in circuit court giving notice to Wade that all local chancery and circuit level judges “will recuse themselves from hearing the case.”

That order cited Tennessee Supreme Court rules in seeking the chief justice’s appointment of “a disinterested judge” to hear the case.

“It is with deep regret that I have to do this, but after a lot of consideration and soul searching, I feel I have no other choice,” Anderson said in a written statement issued the day the lawsuit was filed. “In 1998 as I was being sworn in as sheriff, I took an oath to protect the citizens of this county. I take that oath very seriously and know that we cannot continue on the same path, and adequately protect our citizens, with the amount of funding we currently have.”

State law allows officeholders like Anderson to seek court relief if they can show county funding isn’t sufficient to provide the services they are required, by law, to provide.

Anderson told county commissioners earlier this year that he would consider such a lawsuit if funding wasn’t increased for his department — which under state law includes patrol, investigation, crime prevention, courtroom security, and operation of the county jail (which locally includes multiple facilities).

The Sullivan County Commission ultimately voted to increase the county’s property tax rate by 20 cents per $100 of assessed value for the fiscal year that began July — but did not provide any new funding for the sheriff’s office or jail. The increase instead went largely to schools, the county highway department, and to try and build up the county’s surplus.

Anderson said his budget hasn’t increased in six years despite rising costs for staple supplies like fuel, medical treatment and food costs for jail inmates.

In addition, Anderson and his staff have pointed out increases in call volume and the number of inmates in the county jail.

In 2005, the sheriff’s department dealt with 39,047 calls. By 2011, that number had grown to 60,028.

In 2006, county jail facilities averaged 435 inmates per day. During the first two months of 2012, the daily average had increased to 742.

The budget approved by the Sullivan County Commission on July 30 includes $8.6 million for the sheriff’s department — about $150 less than appropriated for the budget year that ended June 30.

The new budget includes another $7.93 million for the county jail — up about $150,000 from the prior year.

Lawyers hired by Godsey have filed two motions in court seeking dismissal of Anderson’s lawsuit.

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