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Commissioners, sheriff wrangle over Sullivan budget shortfall

April 25th, 2012 11:20 pm by J. H. Osborne

BLOUNTVILLE — After about an hour of what turned out to be little more than “they said, they said,” and nothing resolved, members of the Sullivan County Commission’s Budget Committee and staff from the Sullivan County’s Sheriff’s Office agreed Wednesday to get together again sometime to discuss how to cover a shortfall in county funding for the sheriff’s office and jail.

“They” on the Budget Committee were represented largely by Committee Chairman Eddie Williams.

“They” with the sheriff’s office — great in numbers in the audience — were represented, at least in speech, primarily by Sheriff Wayne Anderson.

Both sides said they are gung ho to work together. Both sides said they expected the other to come forth with a plan.

Williams said the county — once widely believed to have reserve funds at or near $30 million — has depleted that surplus below the point necessary to provide cash flow throughout the annual budget cycle. That, Williams said, is why what he describes as a $600,000 shortfall in funding for the sheriff’s office and jail is a more serious problem than it might have been in the past.

At one point, Anderson asked if the county has $20 million in reserve funds.

Both Williams and County Trustee Frances Harrell — sitting in the audience — quickly said “No.”

“The surpluses are a much lesser amount,” Williams said. “We are in a different position. We can’t take $600,000 from fund balance. So we are going to have to look for something.”

“We have cut to the bone,” Anderson said. “We bleed to death this time.”

Anderson said his department’s budget hasn’t risen in six years — despite perpetually rising call volumes, a jail well past capacity on many days, and increased fuel, food, medical and other costs.

“It has basically stayed the same,” Anderson said of funding for the sheriff’s office and jail since the 2006-07 budget year. “We’ve been running on the same amount of money six years. You can’t do that.”

Anderson said just to keep pace with inflation during the past six years, county funding to the sheriff’s office and jail would have had to have increased $2.3 million. Anderson said he thinks he and his staff have been very responsible with their budget — and surmised the current question about how to cover the shortfall might be compounded by the recent departure of longtime Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey. Bailey retired last month.

“He made it work out,” Anderson said. “He was very good with numbers.”

Anderson said he felt ambushed by a hastily called, unadvertised “emergency” Budget Committee meeting last week, and that he perceived it as an attempt to embarrass him and his staff.

“That was the perception I took ... and that was the perception the public took,” Anderson said. “I’ve had a lot of comments from people. They want public safety. And I’m going to give it to them.”

Williams said the County Commission has struggled to keep the budget tight during the bad economy but has managed to not raise taxes for several years — and not reduced county government’s work force.

Anderson said he cannot — and will not — reduce county law enforcement in the community.

“You have to have public safety,” Anderson said. “It is different than other departments. It’s a different animal. I cannot and will not lay anybody off to take care of this shortfall.”

Anderson said if he were to reduce staffing it would “come back on Sullivan County and the County Commission in multiple lawsuits” because he wouldn’t be able to meet legal mandates — and that he actually needs more officers.

“There are 13 officers out there every night to protect you,” Anderson said of patrol by deputies across the county. “It’s scary to think you have 13 people, at best, out there to protect you.”

Several committee members told Anderson they were surprised he and his staff didn’t present a plan for how to cover the shortfall.

Commissioner Robert White said he doesn’t see it as his job as a county commissioner or Budget Committee member — especially given that he is “new,” having only been elected in 2010 — to come up with a plan.

“I think that’s up to you,” White told Anderson.

White said he’d come to the meeting expecting to hear Anderson offer some possible reductions in spending — even just an offer to park a few cars.

“Maybe I’ve just got a small brain and can’t comprehend anything bigger,” White said.

At one point, as the exchange grew more heated, Anderson said: “I can go to court and sue, and I will probably win” — an apparent reference to the legal recourse state law offers for constitutional officeholders to challenge funding levels as insufficient to meet the requirements of their office.

But Anderson also apologized for being “a little hot.”

Williams, too, apologized at one point — saying that when he organized the “emergency” meeting last week he’d only done what he thought had to be done.

Williams said the whole issue only came up because the sheriff’s office sought his sponsorship of a resolution to transfer $170,000 to cover fuel costs, which have come in higher than budgeted. Williams said he agreed to be a sponsor but then began looking further in the budget and realized the sheriff’s and jail accounts would really need more like $600,000 to finish out the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“I’d rather be working with you than standing up here fussing,” Anderson said at another point.

Asked after the meeting about the possibility of a lawsuit over the issue, Anderson told reporters “I’d rather work it out. But that is the final option I have. We’ve already been bled to death.”

Anderson and Williams each said they thought the meeting was productive. No time or date was announced for the follow-up meeting where each side might or might not present a plan to resolve the matter.

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