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Nothing filed in sheriff’s threatened lawsuit – yet?

By Brad Hicks

Legal action against Unicoi County by Sheriff Mike Hensley for the county’s failure to fund what the sheriff has stated are needs for his department remains up in the air a little more than a week after the passage of the county’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Hensley said on Monday, Aug. 29, he could typically comment on such matters if there was not “something in the works.” The sheriff declined further comment.

“I can’t talk about that,” Hensley said when asked if a decision had been made to pursue the lawsuit.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch also said Monday that his office has received no word “one way or the other” regarding possible legal action by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department. No files have been made in either the Unicoi County Chancery Court or Unicoi County Circuit Court.

On Aug. 22, the Unicoi County Commission by a 6-2 vote approved the second and final reading of the county’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Passage of the budget that evening came with no discussion of several funding requests Hensley had previously presented to the County Commission.

Lynch said Hensley has not yet signed his department’s letter of agreement, which stipulates the department will work within the parameters of the approved budget. However, Lynch said this is not unusual, as it typically takes officeholders some time to sign letters of agreement for their respective offices once the new budget has been passed.

“There’s nothing yet indicative that he’s not going to sign the letter of agreement,” Lynch said.

Lynch previously said officeholders have 30 days to either sign a letter of agreement or file a lawsuit.

The County Commission was made aware of potential legal action by the sheriff on Aug. 8, the same night the commission approved the first reading of the budget. Prior to this meeting, members of the county commission received a letter dated Aug. 8 and signed by Hensley.

In his letter, Hensley presented commissioners with a pair of options pertaining to the maintenance of UCSD vehicles. The sheriff wrote he was also 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 contained with the Unicoi County Jail budget, 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 in his letter gave the commission 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.

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

Included in the original budget for the Unicoi County Jail was $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.

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, adding the commission worked to balance the budget and that the county did not have the funding to take on new expenses. 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 county’s overall 2016-17 budget reflects projected revenues of around $7,150,000 against approximately $7,210,000 in projected expenditures, with a projected fund balance of $569,000. Of the county’s 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.