Kingsport Times News Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Local News

Settlement may be coming in sheriff's funding lawsuit against Sullivan County

April 3rd, 2013 8:26 am by J. H. Osborne

BLOUNTVILLE — Based on comments made by county commissioners Tuesday night, a $1 million-plus settlement offer might be in the works for Sheriff Wayne Anderson’s lawsuit seeking more money from Sullivan County for funding the public safety concerns under his charge, such as patrol, investigation and operation of the county’s oft crowded jail.


Lawyers for both sides have been meeting with Anderson, County Mayor Steve Godsey and staff from the sheriff’s office to try to reach a settlement in mediation rather than going to trial.


Godsey, as county mayor, is listed as the defendant in the lawsuit — and state law gives him the authority to agree to a settlement.


Godsey has said, however, that he would prefer to let the county commission weigh in on any such settlement rather than make a decision on his own — a decision that the county commission ultimately would have to fund.


Members of the county commission’s Executive Committee offered conflicting information Tuesday on whether Godsey plans to seek the full commission’s input at a called meeting next week.


Some members said such a meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday.


Others said that’s not so — that Godsey floated the idea of a called meeting but hasn’t actually gone through with the planning because it was clear too few commissioners would support it.


Commissioner Darlene Calton said it was her understanding that the meeting was a go — at least when she talked to Godsey on Monday.


Commissioner Cathy Armstrong, chairman of the committee, started the conversation by asking if anyone else had gotten a call about a meeting.


Armstrong later said she had gotten a call from Commissioner Dwight King and King had told her Godsey had talked about calling a special meeting, but had decide not to.


Commissioner Bill Kilgore said Godsey had left him a message which he found confusing — and he asked Godsey for clarification.


Kilgore said Godsey told him he had decided not to go forward with the called meeting because he had already gotten 15 commissioners who said they would not support the potential settlement of "$1.2 million" or whatever the figure was.


Godsey publicly announced a called commission meeting in February to talk about potential settlement of the lawsuit, but the meeting didn’t happen. 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 have said, while during the first two months of 2012, the daily average had increased to 742.


In January, 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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