Previously updated: Nov. 7, 2017, 10:01 p.m.
A dozen citizens and just as many sheriff’s office employees attended a public meeting Monday night held by Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson.
The topic of discussion was the disputed 2018 sheriff’s office budget, which Johnson claims does not provide him with adequate funds to run his department and provide law enforcement to the county.
The $38.6 million budget was set Sept. 21 by the board of commissioners and allocates $8.2 million to the sheriff.
Johnson said that if the budget doesn’t change, next year he will have to make tough decisions on what areas to cut.
“It’s not saying that we’re not doing the job, it's saying that I have to pull out different resources to be able to cover these gaps and these deficiencies which we have,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s attorney Joey Homans filed a petition for mandamus Nov. 6 that states the budget approved by the commission “constitutes an abuse of discretion” as they “failed to fulfill the duty to adopt a budget making reasonable and adequate provision for the personnel and equipment necessary to enable the sheriff to perform his duties.”
Homans said the dispute centers on positions: during the sheriff’s budget request presentation in July, he asked for nine positions to be unfrozen and a new investigator position to be created.
The board allowed one position to be unfrozen, a school resource officer, whose salary is paid in part by the county and in part by the board of education.
Johnson argues that because a 2015 study of the department recommended there should be 139 positions at the sheriff’s office (currently there are 112), he should be allocated money to unfreeze the positions he asked for.
Homans said that the sheriff’s budget is $700,000 less than what Johnson requested, and that the two are not asking that the commission cut funds from elsewhere to satisfy that amount.
Of the $160,000 left over from the 2016 budget that was put back in the county’s fund balance, Homans said $30,000 was supposed to be used to pay deputies who worked instead of taking leave. The county policy states that unused leave does not carry over.
The sheriff will take the $30,000 out of his 2017 budget to pay the deputies, Homans said, but the $130,000 remaining should be given back to the sheriff for his 2018 budget.
In addition, Homans said the sheriff intends to have $250,000 left from his 2017 budget that he would like to have carried over into 2018.
Homans also said that there are funding options for the Computer Aided Dispatch system the department is looking to purchase, as the current system is too outdated to receive text messages, which will soon become a requirement for all emergency 911 call centers.
The commission allocated $260,000 for the CAD system in the sheriff’s 2018 budget, to be set aside and added to money to be allocated in 2019.
Homans said that money should be used instead to fund positions, which cannot be grant-funded, and that Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money or a lease-purchase could cover the cost of the system.
“It is reasonable to expect that Dawson County is going to collect sales taxes and property taxes over the next five years,” Homans said.
SPLOST proceeds are put towards a specific list of capital improvements. For sheriff’s equipment and vehicles, voters have approved over $3.8 million. For public safety vehicles and equipment, voters have approved $1.75 million. Homans said that the CAD serves both the sheriff’s office and emergency services, so SPLOST money could be used from either category.
Together with the $130,000 from the 2016 budget and the $250,000 from the 2017 budget, Homans said the $260,000 from the CAD system would mean that the sheriff’s budget would be increased by $640,000. The remaining $60,000, Homans said, he and the sheriff could live with.
“We can’t even get anybody to sit at a table and talk with us about seeing why these options won’t work,” Homans said.
A judge will have the final say in the case.
County Attorney Lynn Frey said Tuesday that though he would not comment on specifics, he confirmed receipt of the petition that Homans filed on behalf of the sheriff, and that he will be filing responsive pleadings to answer the allegations made against the commission.
“Suffice it to say that we do not agree with the allegations and consider the lawsuit to be lacking in merit,” Frey wrote in an email. “The Board of Commissioners acted reasonably and in good faith in exercising the discretion it is given by law in balancing the needs for funding services to the public. They did so in a way that meets the Board’s obligation to act as responsible stewards of the public funds given the realistic expectations as to revenues that could be anticipated.”