Sullivan commissioner says lawsuit between sheriff and mayor could cost taxpayers at least $75,000

J. H. Osborne • Feb 6, 2013 at 9:11 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County taxpayers will ultimately pay the legal bills for a lawsuit between the county sheriff and the county mayor — and one county commissioner is on record saying the bill could reach anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000.

That’s the range Commissioner Ed Marsh said he and other commissioners were told — by a Cleveland-based attorney hired by Mayor Steve Godsey — to consider as the potential bill, from both sides, by the time the case concludes.

That attorney, James Logan, spoke with Godsey and county commissioners behind closed doors and with no records being kept last month after Godsey ordered the public, journalists and some other county officials from the room — despite objections by County Attorney Dan Street and the Times-News that the closed-door session would violate state law on public meetings.

When asked to vote on removing the public, county commissioners agreed to do so — only Commissioner Wayne McConnell said “no,” according to minutes kept on what happened before and after what the minutes describe as the “lengthy time” Logan met out of public earshot with Godsey and commissioners.

In public meetings this week, during discussions on development of a county budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Marsh has raised the issue of the legal bills more than once.

Marsh said Logan told commissioners the bills could ultimately total between $75,000 to $150,000.

That would be for legal fees incurred by both Godsey and the sheriff, Marsh said — taxpayers will pay both bills no matter which side is the victor in court or mediation.

Marsh said Logan told commissioners he himself already has billed the county $10,000.

Marsh asked Interim Accounts and Budgets Director Gayvern Moore if the county had paid that $10,000 and Moore said no.

Contacted later by the Times-News, Moore said she had checked and the county had not, to her knowledge, received a bill from Logan as of Tuesday night.

Moore said that as of Tuesday afternoon, the only invoice connected to the lawsuit that she knew about was a $316 bill for a court reporter — and that it has been paid.

After the public was allowed to return to the meeting where Logan was speaking last month, Logan seemed to have told the full commission about potentially mediating the case rather than letting it go to trail in March.

Logan took care to describe the meeting as “an informational session” in which no deliberations took place.

Logan said if the case goes to court and the sheriff gets all the funding he’s seeking, the county’s liability could be as much as $2.4 million — a figure Marsh repeated during budget development discussions this week.

Logan reminded commissioners that whatever amount the court might order be added to the sheriff’s budget will be retroactive to last July 1 — and will need to be carried over in years to come.

State law allows officeholders like Sheriff Wayne 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 early last year that he would consider such a lawsuit if funding wasn’t increased for his department — which state law requires to include 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 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 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, 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 said, while during the first two months of 2012, the daily average had increased to 742.

The Sullivan County Commission approved this fiscal year’s budget on July 30 and Anderson filed suit in August. As spelled out in state law, the suit named Godsey as defendant — not personally, but in his capacity as county mayor.

The $164 million county 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.

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