BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Commission soundly rejected a potential settlement agreement Monday that had been hashed out in mediation between County Mayor Steve Godsey, Sheriff Wayne Anderson, and their lawyers, regarding Anderson’s lawsuit seeking more funding.
The Times-News has recorded the live broadcast of the meeting. Click here to view the meeting.
To view, or download, a copy of the rejected settlement agreement click here.
Anderson, in his capacity as sheriff, filed the lawsuit, against Godsey in his capacity as mayor, last year. It is set to go to trial in two weeks.
Under state law, Godsey has the authority to settle the lawsuit.
Godsey has said he would prefer to let the county commission weigh in on any such settlement, rather than making a decision on his own — a decision that the county commission ultimately would have to fund.
In a special session Monday night, 21 commissioners voted to recommend Godsey reject all facets of the settlement agreement. One commissioner passed on the vote. Two others were absent.
The chief reason most cited for voting against the settlement: lack of information — specifically, no bottom line on what, exactly, commissioners were being asked to sign off on dollar-wise.
That confusion seemed exacerbated by what some interpreted as a slapdash distribution of a letter and/or a two-page “Proposed Settlement Terms” in the lawsuit.
Most commissioners indicated they’d received at least the two-page document at some point in the last several days from Godsey’s lead lawyer, James Logan.
Several commissioners, however, complained they’d not received the document, and therefore felt they didn’t have all the information to consider what they were asked to consider.
But even those who had the document said it provided no bottom line cost of what the commission would be asked to fund — with taxpayer dollars — if the settlement were agreed to and filed in court.
In an oral presentation Monday, Logan told commissioners the settlement could end the lawsuit for $70,000 in pay raises for sheriff’s employees (for final quarter of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30), and another $15,000 (for work on a security gate within the Sullivan County jail to make it function manually if necessary).
That $70,000 however, was not mentioned, per se, anywhere in the written documents commissioners had been given prior to the meeting.
Logan explained the $70,000 represented just the three-month portion of what was shown in those documents as $325,000 per year for salary and benefit increases.
The latter figure resulted from compromise during mediation — it is less than the $563,000 the county will have to pay out if the case goes to court and Anderson wins the 5 percent increase sought in the lawsuit. Anderson also had agreed to accept having the raises be retroactive only to April 1 of this year — rather than all the way back to July 1 of last year, a possibility under a judge’s ruling.
During Logan’s oral presentation, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation at times, nothing was mentioned about a pay increase for other county employees. But commissioners pointed out the written documents they’d received earlier state “the commission will seek to include within the 2013-2014 budget a 2 percent increase in pay for county employees.”
That would cost an estimated $642,700, according to the county’s payroll office.
Also a stumbling block: Logan’s presentation, and the written documents distributed to most commissioners, recommended the county commission add 18 new deputies, along with the appropriate and necessary vehicles and training — apparently to be funded in the budget year that begins July 1.
But no cost figures were included for the new deputies, which Logan emphasized would be linked to increased protection at county schools through community policing.
Some commissioners said the addition of such officers is completely out of the scope of the original lawsuit.
Logan, however, said he would be remiss if he didn’t try to address what has become obvious — for the upcoming budget process, the sheriff will undoubtedly include requests for more deputies.
It was a lack of such an official request during last year’s budget cycle that allowed Logan to get the court to strike new employees from the current lawsuit.
Logan himself introduced a law enforcement expert whom Anderson has since had evaluate the pay and staffing levels of the sheriff’s department.
Logan said the expert will likely be able to make the case, in court if necessary, that Sullivan County needs 30 more deputies.
Logan said his own comparison of Sullivan County against eight similarly sized counties in Tennessee show that, on average, Sullivan County had more roads to patrol, more crimes reported, fewer employees per capita, and deputies here are responsible for 34 percent more citizens.
On top of all that, the county’s pay scale is not favorable to other law enforcement agencies — meaning it’s harder to attract and keep new employees. New deputies may hire on, get their certification through county-paid training, then move on to a higher-paying agency.
Some commissioners scoffed at the idea that the county isn’t as attractive an employer just because the pay is lower — they said the county’s benefit package evens things out.
The expert disagreed.
And Logan said a judge might, or might not, reach that conclusion.
Logan said Anderson had agreed to significant reductions from what the lawsuit seeks, as both he and Godsey have worked to quell what has been an adversarial situation with the ongoing lawsuit about to spill into another yearly budget process.
After the vote, several commissioners said they hope the two sides will continue to try to work something out to settle the case.
But Logan, shortly after the vote, said it meant the case will be going to trial.
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).
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.