Sheriff Jeff Johnson’s lawsuit against the Dawson County Board of Commissioners was heard in court on Tuesday before Senior Superior Court Judge Fred Bishop.
The hearing is expected to extend into Thursday, with both sides presenting witnesses and arguments related to the sheriff’s disputed 2018 budget, which totals $8,273,080.
Johnson is being represented by local attorney Joey Homans, who asked the judge to order the board of commissioners to provide sufficient funds for the sheriff to adequately operate his department and provide law enforcement to the citizens of the county.
In opening statements, Homans stated that commissioners relied on incorrect information when creating the budget recommendation, and that the sheriff’s dispute centers on staffing.
Homans said that out of the nine positions the sheriff requested be unfrozen and one he wanted added, only one, a school resource officer, was approved by the board.
He referenced a 2015 study by the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, which recommended 139 positions for the agency. Currently, there are 112 positions at the sheriff’s office.
Homans said that Dawson County has “exploded” with growth since 2015, leading to an increase in demand for sheriff’s office services, particularly patrol. He addressed a previous assertion by County Manager David Headley, who in a recent statement read before the board of commissioners stated that out of the positions Johnson requested, none were for patrol.
Homans argued that adding administrative roles to the department would help free up patrol deputies and investigators, who are currently bogged down by administrative duties.
Johnson was the first witness Homans called to the stand.
During his examination, Homans illustrated that the $800,000 cut Johnson claims the commission made to his requested budget has negatively affected the sheriff’s ability to do his job.
Johnson said that short staff in the jail leads to short staff in patrol, and that inadequate patrol officers means that deputies are constantly reactive and dealing with the aftermath of crimes, instead of proactive and preventing crimes.
The new high volume of crime at the Ga. 400 area leaves the rest of county exposed, Johnson said.
“This is about protecting our county and protecting our people,” Johnson said of his request for more money.
County Attorney Lynn Frey asked Johnson to recall numbers of arrests, calls for service and motor vehicle accidents each year since 2015. His point was to show that there had not been a significant increase in any of those categories.
Frey also questioned Johnson about the money that Johnson requested be taken from his leftover 2016 budget to pay his officers for forfeited leave, around $40,000. It is not the policy of the county to pay employees for forfeited leave, but Johnson asserts he has the authority to pay his employees for time off that they were unable to take due to staffing shortages.
When there is leftover money in a county department’s budget at the end of the year, the money is put back in the county’s general fund, which is where the sheriff’s leftover 2016 funds went.
Johnson told Frey he had around $100,000 left in his 2017 budget that he used to purchase tasers, firearms and bullet-proof vests before the end of the year, purchases he would have made with his 2018 budget but now did not have to.
Frey asked why Johnson did not go ahead and pay his officers with the leftover 2017 money. Johnson said he did not pay the officers because the money was being addressed in his current litigation.
Frey also questioned Johnson about his purchasing practices.
In a public meeting with Johnson prior to him filing the lawsuit, commissioners expressed their discontent with Johnson not using the county purchasing policy, which he has a legal right to do.
Johnson said on the stand that until January of this year, he had not had a purchasing policy in place for the sheriff’s office.
Called to the stand after Johnson was Bill Hallsworth, coordinator of jail and court services at the Georgia Sheriff’s Association.
Hallsworth was asked by former Sheriff Billy Carlisle to complete a staffing study for the entire agency, which he completed in December 2014. It is his study that recommended the 139 positions.
David Fox, also representing Johnson, took over to examine Hallsworth, and had him explain how the analysis was done and what it shows.
“Basically you’re trying to quantify the workload of the agency,” Hallsworth said. “You use the available time of a single deputy, divide that by the total workload, and that gives you the number of staff you need to perform that function.”
Homans is expected to call other witnesses from the sheriff’s office as the hearing continues.
Check back for updates on this story.