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County commissioners to blame for Sullivan sheriff’s lawsuit

Editorial Board • Updated Sep 21, 2015 at 10:58 AM

Nothing is certain except death and taxes, and, that Sheriff Wayne Anderson will sue Sullivan County.

It was a fait accompli and yet we heard of no effort over the several years since Anderson clearly signaled he would not accept status quo funding, to fully resolve the county’s failure to adequately fund law enforcement. And so, county taxpayers are about to flush hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the absurdity of both suing themselves, and, defending themselves from their own suit.

Whether the sheriff wins or loses, that’s money down the drain.

Two years ago when Anderson sued for lack of funding, it cost county residents $143,000 in legal fees and court costs. And that one didn’t even go to trial. So what are we looking at now, a half-million dollars? More? All because county commissioners would not do their proper jobs.

That’s harsh. But Anderson was fully prepared then and is fully prepared now to show that his department is grossly underfunded, the responsibility for which was the Sullivan County Commission’s.

Anderson was unsuccessful in his 2013 suit but only on a technicality. That suit sought nearly $10 million mostly for additional personnel, but the court ordered the sheriff to trim the request because under state law, an officeholder is allowed to file suit and seek only something officially requested in a prior budget request that is denied. Anderson’s official budget request for that budget year had not included a request for those new employees.

But that served notice that the sheriff would be back, if necessary. And the failure of the commission to resolve its historic underfunding of the department has made it necessary in the sheriff’s view.

We wrote in this space six months ago that Sheriff Anderson’s pleas for more financial support were being ignored, despite that a study justified them. The county two years ago approved a 20 cent tax hike which became necessary because commissioners had sat on their financial haunches for eight years, refusing to raise the property tax one cent even to keep pace with inflation. But not a penny of that increase went to the sheriff’s budget, which hadn’t increased in six years, despite that demands on the department have increased substantially. We warned that the sheriff would have no choice but to return to court, where, given that study, he would likely win.

As a county budget was being developed earlier this year, it looked as if Anderson would get a $1 million increase to his budget. But the commission reneged on that increase even as it approved a 27 cent tax hike raising an additional $9.4 million — of which the sheriff’s department only gets $134,000, the sheriff says.

The commission might have sat down with the sheriff and at least tried to come to some accommodation. Now, everyone’s lawyering up, and if Anderson wins, county residents are looking at an additional 19 cents to fund the $6.5 million he seeks — plus attorney fees and court costs. It didn’t have to come to this. For shame that it has.

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