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Judge rules in commission’s favor on sheriff budget issue
Jeff Johnson
Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson

After a month of silence, an order from Senior Judge Fred A. Bishop’s office Friday morning officially denied Sheriff Jeff Johnson’s request for more funds in his 2018 budget.

Johnson filed a lawsuit against the Dawson County Board of Commissioners in November asking for $700,000 in additional funding, stating he had not been allocated enough funds to adequately perform his duties as an elected official.

His lawyer, Joey Homans, presented the case in the Dawson County Superior Court on Jan. 30 and Jan. 31. Homans argued that the board of commissioners abused their discretion when they made cuts to the budget that the sheriff proposed.

After hearing testimony from Johnson and his command staff on their perceived need for more personnel in the jail, on the roads and at the courthouse, as well as from Commission Chairman Billy Thurmond and the county’s finance director, Vickie Neikirk, Bishop gave the two sides 15 days to work out their differences.

When a decision was not reached by Feb. 15, Bishop took the case under consideration.

Bishop’s ruling, which he filed March 16, stated that there had been no abuse of discretion, and that had the judge ruled in Johnson's favor, he still would not have the authority to tell the commission how much money to then give the sheriff’s department.

Johnson was allocated $8,272,080 for 2018 ($8,399,344.58 after the board approved salary increases) after requesting $9,098,699 during budget hearings.

Though his 2018 budget was lower than requested, it is still over $700,000 higher than what he was allocated in 2017.

In his ruling, Bishop said that the sheriff should not concern himself with how much money other departments receive, as Johnson had previously stated that his budget, which comprises 29 percent of the county’s total budget, received more cuts than any other department.  

“The board of commissioners does not have the luxury of focusing on one department, officer or agency to the disadvantage of others,” he wrote. “It must use it's judgement to produce a budget that provides the best service it can with the resources at hand, looking at the overall picture.

“[The sheriff’s] concern is to strive for funding he deems adequate to fund those services at an appropriate level,” Bishop continued. “He is not charged by law to concern himself with where those needs fall with the larger picture of allocation of available funds to...county operations. The sheriff has authority to request a budget with such amounts for expenditures as he deems fit but he is not authorized to establish or approve that requested budget himself.”

Johnson said in an email Friday afternoon that he was disappointed by the ruling.

“Obviously we are disappointed in the ruling and continue to be concerned for the safety of our community,” he said. “Our primary argument was and continues to be for additional staff to perform the duties and responsibilities required of this office. Very little in the ruling addressed this primary concern.

“Regardless of this outcome, we will continue to serve the citizens of Dawson County at our highest level.”

Thurmond said Friday afternoon that he had not had a chance yet to thoroughly review the judge’s ruling, but that it aligned with the view of the commission.

“The judge made a ruling based on the facts of the case,” Thurmond said. “If you look at the amount of money the county gave the sheriff’s office, it’s an adequate amount. The judge saw it as we did, that we did the best we could with the amount we had at the time.”

District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines said that he appreciates all the hard work and effort the county’s team put into defending the commission’s budget process.

“I look forward to moving beyond this and working with all departments to meet their needs in order to deliver top quality service to citizens that is within our budget,” he said.