Sullivan County officials want commission to ask sheriff to drop lawsuit

J. H. Osborne • Jan 7, 2013 at 11:04 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — For whatever it’s worth, three county commissioners went on record Monday that they think the full Sullivan County Commission should simply ask Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson to drop a lawsuit seeking additional money from the county for the sheriff’s office and jail.

Commissioner Baxter Hood proffered the move, asking fellow members of the Administrative Committee to take a vote to send the suggestion to the full 24-member commission — asking that body to in turn send the request to Anderson.

Hood ultimately garnered support from Commissioners Ed Marsh and Pat Shull, although Shull kept silent during an initial voice vote and when pressed, at first said he wasn’t sure what Hood was trying to get at.

Commissioners Dwight King and Wayne McConnell voted no — both pointing out that legally such a move carries no weight and, as outlined in state law, constitutional officeholders such as the sheriff are permitted to file such suits and to do so against the county’s mayor.

At this point, they said, the county commission doesn’t have a role in the process.

McConnell said Hood should raise the issue not at the committee level, but later this month at the full commission.

Hood said it would mean more if it were a committee recommendation.

Administrative Committee Chairman Bryan Boyd passed on the vote, but said with the 3-2 split (two committee members were absent) the suggestion would go to the full commission as a committee recommendation.

Anderson is seeking millions of dollars in a lawsuit filed 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 in 2012 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 last July 1, 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.

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, Anderson’s staff said, and by 2011, that number had grown to 60,028.

In 2006, county jail facilities averaged 435 inmates per day, Anderson’s staff has said, while 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.

A trial date for the lawsuit is set for March 11.

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