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Sheriff hires legal representation

Sheriff Mike Hensley, left, addresses the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee on July 20. (FIle photo)
Sheriff Mike Hensley, left, addresses the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee on July 20. (FIle photo)

By Brad Hicks

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch has received notice that Sheriff Mike Hensley has acquired legal representation in his possible lawsuit against the county’s governing body.

Last week, attorneys with the Johnson City-based Pectol & Miles law firm submitted to Lynch a letter addressed to the county mayor. The purpose of the brief letter, dated Aug. 31, was to notify the mayor that attorneys with the practice will represent Hensley should the sheriff opt to pursue legal action for the Unicoi County Commission’s failure to fund what Hensley previously described as necessities for his department.

The letter, which was signed by attorney Richard Pectol, in its entirety reads:

“Please allow this letter to confirm that my law firm has been engaged by Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley to represent him in connection with a lawsuit he is contemplating bringing under Tennessee Code Annotated 8-20-101(a)(1) and 8-20-120 in the event he is not afforded additional funding by the Unicoi County Commission to enable him to (i) meet his statutory duties as Unicoi County Sheriff and (ii) properly and efficiently conduct the affairs and transact the business of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s office. This would of course include additional funding for the security of the Unicoi County Jail and the Jail Annex.”

TCA 8-20-101 essentially permits county officials, including the sheriff, to file a salary suit if they do not agree with the budgetary amount appropriated by the county’s governing body. TCA 8-20-120 pertains to the funding of county sheriff’s departments.

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, county governing bodies shall fund the operations of the county’s sheriff’s department,” TCA 8-20-120 states. “The sheriff may appoint such personnel as may be provided for in the budget adopted for such department. No county governing body shall adopt a budget absent the consent of the sheriff, which reduces below current levels the salaries and number of employees in the sheriff’s department. In the event a county governing body fails to budget any salary expenditure which is a necessity for the discharge of the statutorily mandated duties of the sheriff, the sheriff may seek a writ of mandamus to compel such appropriation.”

Due to the potential for legal action, Lynch said he could not comment on the specifics of the matter but called the most recent development “unfortunate.”

“We’ll just have to wait and see where it goes from here,” Lynch said.

Hensley directed all questions regarding the possible lawsuit to Pectol & Miles.

Pectol said Friday that while the letter does not necessarily mean a lawsuit will be filed, his law firm is prepared to represent Hensley should legal action be taken.

“Hopefully the lawsuit will not be necessary,” Pectol said. “I think Sheriff Hensley has been very reasonable in his requests, and we hope that the Commission will take another look and see that he is in dire need of the funds he has asked for. It’s all about the security and safety of the citizens of Unicoi County.”

Pectol said legal action could be avoided and Unicoi County’s citizens would be “well-served” if the County Commission would again convene to address Hensley’s funding requests.

“It’s just a tough situation when you have to file suit and, hopefully, reasonable people will get together and work this out. That’s all he really wants,” Pectol said.

County officeholders have 30 days from the passage of the county’s overall fiscal year budget to either sign a letter of agreement stipulating they will work within the parameters of the budget approved by the county’s governing body or file suit. Pectol said if a lawsuit is filed, it would be filed in Unicoi County Circuit Court. He added the 30-day clock started on Aug. 22, the evening the Unicoi County Commission passed the second and final reading of the county’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. 

“We’re prepared to do whatever we have to do within the time limit prescribed by law,” Pectol said.

The Unicoi County Commission was made aware of possible legal action by the sheriff on Aug. 8, the same date the panel approved the first reading of the county’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Prior to that evening’s meeting, county commissioners received a letter dated Aug. 8 and signed by Hensley.

In his letter, Hensley presented commissioners with two options pertaining to the maintenance of Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department vehicles. The sheriff also wrote that he was seeking the funding to bring two part-time corrections officers at each of the county’s jail facilities to full-time status, the restoration of funding for a teaching position included in the submitted budget for the Unicoi County Jail, and funding to install fencing around the Unicoi County Jail Annex.

“If this can be accomplished I will accept this budget and the cuts that we have previously discussed, respectfully if this cannot be accomplished this will be turned over to my attorney,” Hensley’s letter stated.

Hensley provided the Commission with the option of replacing the roof on the UCSD’s vehicle maintenance garage located in downtown Erwin and providing funding to hire a certified mechanic or increasing his department’s funding for vehicle maintenance and repair.

During meetings of the County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee held to prepare the county’s overall 2016-17 budget, Hensley estimated the repair of the leaky roof would cost in the neighborhood of $30,000. In his letter, Hensley provided annual mechanic salary estimates ranging from around $31,000 to nearly $46,000.

Hensley requested that $110,000 be provided in his budget for vehicle maintenance and repair if the Commission chose not to repair the roof and hire the mechanic. The UCSD originally sought $50,000 for this expenditure in the 2016-17 fiscal year, but the Budget and Finance Committee during its meetings proposed reducing this amount to $36,000.

The original budget for the Unicoi County Jail included $25,000 for a teacher who leads the inmate GED and drug rehabilitation programs. During its sessions, the Budget and Finance Committee had proposed completely eliminating funding for the position but later opted to provide $15,000 for the position by increasing projected state inmate revenues by the same amount.

In his letter, Hensley called for the full $25,256 for the position to be restored. Hensley previously said around $24,000 would be needed to complete the installation of razor wire, which his department acquired at no cost, around the Jail Annex.

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice previously said the requests outlined in Hensley’s Aug. 8 letter represented expenditures in the $175,000 to $200,000 range. She also said county officials had already been working to address some of Hensley’s requests. On the same evening it approved the budget’s second reading, the County Commission approved allowing Lynch to take quotes and/or bids on replacing the maintenance garage roof, as well as receive offers for surplus metal studs from jail facility renovations to help offset the roof repair cost.

The Unicoi County Commission on Aug. 22 approved the second and final reading of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget without addressing the requests outlined in Hensley’s Aug. 8 letter.

Of the county’s approximately $7.2 million total budget, expenses associated with the UCSD – which is made up of the department’s general budget, the jail budget and the jail annex budget – represent approximately $3 million.