Settlement of sheriff's suit will cost taxpayers an estimated $2 million

J. H. Osborne • Jun 27, 2017 at 9:46 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Sheriff's Office will receive an estimated $2 million or so in new funding under terms of the settlement agreement that ended Sheriff Wayne Anderson’s 2-year-old lawsuit seeking more funding, Anderson and County Mayor Richard Venable said Tuesday.

That money will come from county taxpayers. But just where it will come from — existing revenue or an increase on the tax rate — isn’t clear yet.

Venable said he hopes growth in the county’s tax base, combined perhaps with cuts elsewhere in the budget, will provide enough money to pay for the settlement without a property tax increase.

Anderson said the figure his office will receive due to the settlement is between $1.8 million and $2 million, but he was quick to point out that including the settlement, the county has increased his budget between $3.6 and $4 million since he filed the lawsuit in 2015. Anderson credited the lawsuit with having helped raise awareness and understanding among county commissioners of the needs of all the various components of his department. Anderson said the 18 new employees granted in the settlement bring the total new sheriff’s employees to 33 since he filed the lawsuit.

“I think because of the lawsuit ... they saw the need we have and they’ve tried to help,” Anderson said.

The settlement includes a 5 percent raise for all sheriff’s employees. When Anderson’s prior lawsuit was settled several years ago, it included a 2 percent raise for his employees — and the county commission later extended the same raise to all county employees.

Anderson said the raise, along with $150,000 for discretionary bonuses, will help him retain employees by making pay more competitive with other law enforcement agencies. Examples of how the raises work: in 2015, corrections officers started at $12.08 and patrol officers started at $13.28 per hour. Beginning July 1, corrections officers will start at $14.08 and patrol officers will start at $15.38.

“I am personally very pleased with it,” Anderson said, adding he filed the lawsuit because he simply didn’t have the staff adequately to perform his state-mandated duties, from patrol to criminal investigation to running the jail and serving process.

Venable put the total figure of increases for the sheriff’s office, including the settlement, at more than $4 million since 2015 and noted the Sullivan County Commission had approved $1 million or more in new funding in each of the two most recent budget years — without going to the tax rate to do so. Based on what each penny of the county’s tax rate generated for the current budget year, it would take between five and six cents to raise between $1.8 million and $2 million.

The county already plans to increase its property tax by as much as nine cents for the budget year that begins Saturday to pay for a $140 million school bond debt. Venable said county taxpayers know where that money is going and the public seems to understand and support funding schools. If the tax rate has to go up to cover the sheriff’s budget, which falls under public safety, Venable said that, too, would be made clear to taxpayers.

An exact figure on what the settlement will cost won’t be available until the county’s accounting office can tally up payroll and benefits costs connected to the 18 new hires granted in the settlement plus start-up costs like new vehicles and training for some of them.

On the flip side, county officials can’t say exactly where they’ll be able to come up with the money to fund the settlement once the total has been calculated.

The county’s budget year begins July 1. That’s when the settlement says the additional funding will be added to the sheriff’s budget. But no county budget has been developed, and as of Tuesday morning there were no firm dates for meetings to get the ball rolling.

One thing holding up the budget process is the lack of a certified tax rate from the state. This is a reappraisal year for Sullivan County. When the countywide assessment changes due to reappraisal, the state sets a certified tax rate that will produce the same amount of revenue as the current tax rate. If the countywide assessment increases due to the reappraisal, the certified rate will be lower than the current rate.

Venable said while Sullivan County had not received its certified tax rate, it was his understanding the city of Kingsport has received its certifed rate from the state and it calls for a reduction of 10 cents or so — an indication of good growth. Venable said he hopes that bodes well for growth countywide, as Kingsport provides a significant portion of the countywide assessment.

Under state law, if a locality’s certified tax rate is lower than its most recent tax rate, and the locality adopts a tax rate higher than the certified rate, it is deemed a tax increase — whether the figure is the same as or lower than the previous rate.

According to information provided by the sheriff’s finance officer, the sheriff’s budget this year totaled $19.2 million and based on estimates for the settlement’s costs, it will increase to about $20.96 million for the budget year that begins July 1.