Judge: Amount of Sullivan sheriff's $9.9 million lawsuit must be lowered

J. H. Osborne • Nov 8, 2012 at 10:06 AM

After a preliminary motions hearing Wednesday, Sheriff Wayne Anderson’s lawsuit seeking more funding from Sullivan County is set to move forward with a March 11 trial date.

But the dollar amount of Anderson’s claim will be millions of dollars less after Special Judge James Beckner agreed the sheriff’s nearly $10 million filing must be amended to exclude anything not included in the sheriff’s budget requests to the Sullivan County Commission earlier this year.

Beckner further directed Anderson’s legal team to identify any "ex officio" expenses — that means funding for anything that isn’t related to a fee-generating function of the sheriff’s office or jail. And Beckner told the sheriff the amended claim needs to be more specific in why requested items are needed — not just that they are needed. Beckner said he wants an explanation of how the sheriff’s duties, as mandated by state law, will not be performed without that funding.

And both sides agreed to remove from the lawsuit funding requested to repair a decades-old elevator at the jail. The County Commission approved funding for that project last month, at which time Anderson promised to remove it from the lawsuit.

James Logan and Steve Darden, attorneys for Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey — named, in his official capacity, as defendant in Anderson’s lawsuit — filed two motions seeking dismissal of the case.

Beckner denied the first, which sought dismissal based on a technicality of how the lawsuit was served.

The second said the sheriff’s $10 million claim isn’t valid because a state law governing the county’s accounting practices limits such claims to no more than what a sheriff, or other constitutional officeholder, submitted to the county commission during the annual budget process.

Logan said the difference between what the sheriff sought during the budget process and what the County Commission ultimately approved in funding was about $1.4 million. Anderson’s legal team did not use that figure, but said the lawsuit as originally filed did seek funding for items not requested in the budget process, specifically, manpower.

Beckner outlined two answers: leave the lawsuit as originally submitted and let the proof come out at trail as to what would be allowed under the state accounting law; or amend the lawsuit to more specifically identify the requests made to, but not granted by, the County Commission.

Beckner said it was best to allow the complaint to be amended, and gave Anderson’s team 30 days to do so.

Godsey’s team will then have 10 days to respond.

Beckner also denied a motion from Anderson’s attorneys, Richard Pectol and Jeff Miles, for a court order to direct the county trustee’s office to pay their bill monthly.

Logan argued against the move.

Beckner said he questioned his authority to do such a thing before even hearing Logan’s comments.

Pectol said their fees have been paid monthly as cases proceeded in other counties, and he noted expenses are being incurred to prepare for the case.

Beckner denied the motion but said he would review the topic to see if he has the authority.

Anderson filed the $9.9 million lawsuit against the county in late August for what he has said is needed funding to provide public safety at the appropriate levels.

"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 released to media outlets when 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."

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 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 in 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 to 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.

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