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Sheriff opts not to sue over budget

By Brad Hicks

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley will not pursue legal action against Unicoi County over the 2016-17 budget, but several items will be presented to the county’s governing body for its funding consideration in the next fiscal year.

Hensley and his attorneys issued a statement on Monday, Sept. 19, announcing the sheriff’s decision not to file a lawsuit against the county for the Unicoi County Commission’s failure to fund in the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget items Hensley previously described as necessities for his department.

“After giving the matter thorough consideration, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley has decided that he will not file a lawsuit against Unicoi County seeking additional funding for the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department for the 2016-17 fiscal year,” the statement reads. “This decision was confirmed to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch by Hensley’s attorneys on September 15, 2016. Sheriff Hensley stated while he remains concerned that the 2016-17 fiscal year budget that was approved in August by the Unicoi County Commission for the Sheriff’s Department will not be sufficient for him to perform his statutory and other duties (which include guarding the courts, maintaining the peace, serving subpoenas and other legal documents, and operating the Unicoi County Jail), he and his staff will do the best they can with the funds that were budgeted to the Sheriff’s Department by the County Commission to perform those duties and protect the citizens of Unicoi County.”

Lynch on Monday described Hensley’s decision as “good news.”

“It’s always a relief when you know you don’t have a lawsuit on the horizon,” Lynch said. “I think it was the best decision for the taxpayers, who ultimately foot the bill for whatever the County Commission opts to do as far as salaries and different line items. So, hopefully, this will send a message to them that he’s willing to work within the parameters, and next year (the County Commission) can maybe work on broadening his parameters a little bit. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice concurred with Lynch’s reaction to the announcement.

“I’m thankful that the taxpayers won’t have to foot the additional cost for a lawsuit,” Rice said. “I’m glad the sheriff decided not to go that route.”

Monday’s announcement was made as the deadline for the sheriff to either agree to the approved budget or file suit approached.

The Unicoi County Commission was first made aware of possible legal action by the sheriff prior to its Aug. 8 meeting, during which it approved the first reading of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget. Commissioners had received a letter dated Aug. 8 and signed by Hensley.

In that letter, Hensley presented commissioners with two options impacting the maintenance of UCSD vehicles. The sheriff also wrote that he was seeking 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 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 Aug. 8 letter stated.

The sheriff presented 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 around $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 originally-submitted 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 teaching position to be restored.

Hensley previously said around $24,000 would be needed to complete the installation of fencing around the Jail Annex.

The 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.

According to law, officeholders have 30 days from the passage of the budget to either sign a letter of agreement stating they will work within the parameters of the approved budget or file a lawsuit if they feel the approved funding is inadequate.

After the passage of Unicoi County’s 2016-17 budget, Lynch received notice that Hensley had obtained legal representation should he opt to pursue legal action against the county. Attorneys with the Johnson City-based Pectol & Miles law firm provided Lynch with a letter dated Aug. 31 that stated the firm would have represented Hensley had he chosen to pursue legal action.

Even though he has decided not to pursue the lawsuit, Hensley is already looking ahead to the 2017-18 fiscal year. In the statement issued Monday, Hensley spells out several items for which he will seek funding in 2017-18.

“Sheriff Hensley further stated that for purposes of the 2017-18 fiscal year, he intended to submit a budget request which will set forth in great detail the funds he will need to (i) hire additional deputies and correctional officers; (ii) provide the existing deputies and correctional officers with salaries and benefits that are commensurate with those paid by surrounding counties; and (iii) make long-overdue and necessary improvements to the Jail and Jail Annex,” the statement issued Monday reads. “Sheriff Hensley added that his budget requests for fiscal year 2017-18 will be supported by written analyses prepared by the County Technical Advisory Service following its exhaustive investigation into the Sheriff Department’s staffing needs.”

The statement also requests that members of the Unicoi County Commission keep in mind the revenue the UCSD has generated when it comes time to consider these requests.

“Sheriff Hensley also pointed out that in the 2015-16 fiscal year alone, the Sheriff’s Department generated over $931,000 in revenue that was all paid into the County’s general fund – an amount that far surpasses the revenue generated by the Sheriff’s Department under previous administrations,” the statement issued Monday reads. “Sheriff Hensley stated that at the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year, the general fund had a balance of approximately $68,000, and he believes that the increase in the general fund balance was due in large part to the substantial additional revenue during the 2015-16 fiscal year. Sheriff Hensley is hopeful that when the County Commission consider his budget request for fiscal year 2017-18, it will recognize the Sheriff’s Department’s significant contribution to the County’s revenue and will use that additional revenue to enable Sheriff Hensley to (i) hire additional deputies and correctional officers, (ii) increase the salaries and benefits paid to the Department’s existing deputies and correctional officers, and (iii) make long-overdue and necessary improvements to the Jail and Jail Annex.”

Lynch said he hopes the Unicoi County Commission can work with Hensley throughout the 2016-17 fiscal year and that Hensley’s decision not to pursue the lawsuit sends a message to the County Commission that he is willing to work with them.

“I hope that the County Commission can work with him, actually, over this coming year prior to the budget, possibly getting some of the things accomplished that he had wanted to earlier,” Lynch said.

Rice said the Unicoi County Commission will work with the UCSD in the 2017-18 fiscal year, but she added the Commission must work within the revenue available when preparing the budget.

“As usual, we’ll try to work with him in any way we can, and then in next year’s budget, we still have to work with the revenue that comes in,” Rice said. “We have to balance the budget. If we don’t have the revenue, we sure can’t spend that money, so we’ll just have to look at his requests and see where things are. Hopefully, the revenue will improve by next year.”