After a day and a half of testimony, Senior Superior Court Judge Fred A. Bishop Jr. called both the Dawson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Billy Thurmond and Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson “bright” and “competent” and said Dawson County was fortunate to have them.
He then ordered both parties to work out their differences before Feb. 15, or he will sign an order that he expects one side or the other would probably wish to appeal.
Johnson filed a lawsuit against the board of commissioners in November, stating he had not been allocated enough funds in his 2018 budget to be able to adequately perform his duties as an elected official. His lawyer Joey Homans presented the case in the Dawson County Superior Court on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Homans argued that board of commissioners abused their discretion when they made cuts to the budget that the sheriff proposed.
The sheriff was allocated a budget of $8,273,080 and is pursuing $700,000 more, mainly for staffing. In his budget requests he asked for nine positions that the department used to have, but no longer staffs, and one new position.
The board of commissioners funded one of the positions, a school resource officer, whose salary is paid in part by the board of education.
Homans said the commissioners erred in giving two positions to the planning and development department and nine firefighter positions to emergency services in 2017, but not giving the sheriff any new positions.
Homans also stated that the commission cut the sheriff’s 2018 budget by giving him money he doesn’t have access to, particularly the $260,000 the board set aside in capital funds to purchase a new Computer Aided Dispatch system in 2019. Homans said the CAD could be eligible for SPLOST funds or for a lease-purchase.
“With these critical needs, why would you take that money and just set it on the sidelines? That would fund two, three or more, several positions for the sheriff’s office,” Homans asked Chairman Thurmond, who was called to the stand by County Attorney Lynn Frey.
Thurmond did not deny that the system could be paid for with SPLOST funds or a lease-purchase, but said it was his understanding that the CAD system would need to be funded by 2019 at a cost of around $500,000, so saving the money seemed the best option.
He also said he disagreed with using whatever was left of the $260,000 after a lease-purchase payment for salaries in 2018, because that would create a “forever cost” as opposed to a one-time capital cost.
Homans and Johnson also maintained throughout the hearing that the board and finance department were unwilling to work with them and meet with them about the budget, which Thurmond refuted.
In addition to citing the three budget hearings (held on Aug. 17, Aug. 24 and Sept. 7) and one special called meeting on Sept. 19 before the budget was approved on Sept. 21, Thurmond stated that he “never refused to meet with anyone” and had personally met with the sheriff.
Chief Financial Officer Vickie Neikirk also took the stand in defense of the county and addressed the means the county has to fund the sheriff’s requests.
She said that the county tries to maintain a minimum of 15 percent of its fund balance for emergencies, and that the county plans on withdrawing money from the fund balance in 2018 in order to create a balanced budget. Withdrawing any more than was approved by the board on Sept. 21, she said, would push the fund balance below 15 percent.
The only way to fund requests after that, Neikirk said, is to borrow the money or raise taxes.
And Frey summed up his argument with a simple question to the chairman: Why didn’t the board of commissioners fund all of the requested items that the sheriff put in his 2018 fiscal year budget proposal?
“There wasn’t enough revenue,” Thurmond said.
Testifying for the sheriff were members of his command staff, who were there to illustrate the need for more positions in the sheriff’s office.
E911 Director Aleisha Rucker-Wright provided statistics on the increase in calls for services, criminal cases worked and increases in certain crimes, including assault, forgery, domestic violence, child abuse and molestation, from 2015 to 2017.
According to Rucker-Wright, calls for service increased from 61,241 to 65,963, case assignments increased from 399 to 484, domestic violence cases increased from 20 to 72 and child abuse and molestation cases increased from 14 to 28.
Sheriff’s Services Commander Chad White said that the demands of the courthouse, particularly needing two officers at the metal detectors and officers in the courtrooms during proceedings, keep warrant officers from going out and serving warrants. Dawson County currently has 513 active warrants for arrest, he said.
He also echoed a common sentiment among his fellow command staff: his officers were unable to get any training in 2017 other than what was necessary to maintain their certification.
Assistant Detention Commander Theresa Kirby said that the number of inmates in the detention center doesn’t effect the number of detention officers needed.
While Frey argued that the detention center has seen a decrease in inmates as the count’s justification for not allocating money to hire Johnson’s four requested detention officers, Kirby said that the way the jail is set up, a certain number of detention officers are necessary to maintain standards.
There are eight pods in the detention center that keep men separated from women, those accused of sex crimes from general population and so on, she said. Officers are needed to watch over each of the pods, whether there are four inmates in each pod or fourteen.
Also testifying on behalf of the sheriff was Bill Hallsworth of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, who provided former Sheriff Billy Carlisle with the 2015 study that recommended 139 positions for the sheriff’s office, which currently employs 112. He explained how he came up with the numbers, and stood by his recommendation for an increase in personnel.
“If you’ve already allocated your existing personnel the best that you can, and you’re still not able to do all the things that need to be done, I guess the only option you would have would be to increase staff,” Hallsworth said.
Frey asked Hallsworth if, in the 20 or 40 or so similar studies he had completed for other departments over the past 11 years, if he ever recommended an overall decrease in staff.
Hallsworth said no.
Judge Bishop said during his ruling Jan. 31 that he understood the delicate balance of the board being fiscally responsible with public funds as well as the constitutional duty of the sheriff to provide adequate public safety and law enforcement to the county.
He said there didn’t appear to him to be capricious or arbitrary acts on either side, and that he would need to sit down and look at the evidence and briefs that the lawyers will submit.
“It seems to me there ought to be a face-to-face, sincere sit-down here between the parties to see if there’s some middle ground here,” Bishop said. “No matter what the order is...you’ve got a good likelihood I suppose that there will be an appeal by the party that doesn’t get what it wants, in which case is another delay and more attorneys fees and time...and if it's not resolved before the next budget is addressed, the same issue could continue going into the next budget.”
Homans said Friday that the amount the county has paid for Johnson's lawsuit so far totals $11,145, and that after the January bill is paid, the total amount will be $20,858.12.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated the amount that has been paid to Homans for the sheriff's lawsuit.