Sullivan to discuss settling sheriff's lawsuit

J. H. Osborne • Feb 19, 2013 at 9:50 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Commission will meet in called session next week to discuss potential settlement of Sheriff Wayne Anderson’s lawsuit seeking additional county funding for the various public safety services state law requires him to provide.

County Mayor Steve Godsey announced the called session during the commission’s regular monthly meeting on Tuesday.

Godsey said he and Anderson have been working hard, together, to resolve the lawsuit through mediation in a joint attempt to avoid a trial — and that each side is determined to do what is best for the county taxpayers, who will foot the bill for whatever agreement is reached.

“We’re trying to be good stewards of the county,” Godsey said.

Anderson also spoke of a spirit of cooperation.

“We are working together,” Anderson said. “We want to do what is best for Sullivan County.”

Godsey said he and Anderson, with help from their attorneys, will present what they’ve come up with during mediation attempts in recent days.

That meeting is set to begin at 7 p.m. on Feb. 25, Godsey said. And while attorneys advised that no questions be taken Tuesday from the commission floor, commissioners will receive a packet of information later this week outlining the possible resolutions discussed in mediation.

Elsewhere in the courthouse during portions of the commission’s meeting on Tuesday, Anderson and his staff continued to work behind closed doors with attorneys from both sides.

Speaking to the full commission at a later point, Anderson said he hates that the situation got to the point of him filing the lawsuit — a process outlined in state law as the way officeholders challenge what they see as a lack of needed funding.

State law allows constitutional officeholders, like a sheriff, 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 has 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.

Last month, Godsey’s attorney for the case told commissioners 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 — and reminded them 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.

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