Unicoi County sheriff will not take legal action for more county funding

Sue Guinn Legg • Sep 20, 2016 at 8:55 PM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley will not sue Unicoi County for funding to run his department in the coming fiscal year.

One week ahead of county officeholders’ Sept. 22 filing deadline for lawsuits contesting the county’s 2016-17 fiscal budget, Hensley’s lawyers notified Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch of Hensley’s decision not to sue on Sept. 15.

In a telephone interview with the Johnson City Press on Tuesday, Hensley said, “I am trying my best to work with the county. We’ve all got to work together and I want to work with them. Unfortunately there are things that need to be addressed. I am going to try my best to work with them and work with what they have given me.”

Hensley first informed the county commission of his intent to turn his requests for additional funding over to his attorney in a letter delivered to Lynch and the commissioners on Aug. 8, immediately prior to a called meeting for commission’s first-reading approval the budget.

The letter set out two funding options for the Sheriff’s Department and three funding requests for the jails, without which Hensley’s stated the matter would be turned over to his attorney. The funding options included a new roof for the Sheriff’s Department garage and a full-time mechanic, or $100,000 for vehicle maintenance. For the jail budget, Hensley requested $25,256 annual salary for a GED teacher, two part-time jailer positions increased to full-time positions and improvements to the Jail Annex fence needed to meet state corrections requirements.

With the budget approval the only item on the agenda at the Aug. 8 meeting, the commission proceeded to approve the budget on first reading with little discussion of the sheriff’s requests.

After that meeting, Hensley said his only options were to sign a pledge to work within the budget or to file a lawsuit against the county if he feels he can not run his department and jail efficiently with the funds allocated for his department. “This is not something I want to do. It’s something I have to do,” Hensley said after the meeting.

County Commission Chair Marie Rice said after the meeting repairs to the garage were already in process and improvements to jail annex fence would be made after the garage repairs with the cost of both projects coming from the county’s building maintenance funds and not the sheriff’s department.

She said the sheriff eliminated the mechanic’s position from his department earlier this year in order to give raises to his employees. And for vehicle maintenance, Rice said the sheriff’s original budget request was for $50,000, compared to the $35,000 he spent on vehicle repairs in the prior budget year and $36,000 allocated in the 2016-17 budget.

She said Hensley’s request for a full-time salary for GED teacher salary was discussed at length by the budget committee and reduced to $15,000 for a part-time salary after it was determined the position is not required by the state and several community ministers were willing to help provide service as volunteers at jail.

A press release issued on Monday says Hensley “remains concerned that the 2016-17 fiscal year budget ... will not be sufficient for him to perform his statutory and other duties” and that he will be submitting a much more extensive budget request for fiscal 2017-18 to “set forth in great detail the funds he will need to hire additional deputies and correctional officers, provide the existing deputies and correctional officers with salaries and benefits that are commensurate with those paid by surrounding counties, and make long-overdue and necessary improvements to the jail and jail annex.”

The press release also notes that the sheriff’s department “generated over $931,000 in revenue that was all paid into the county’s general fund” in fiscal 2015-16 which Hensley believes allowed the county to increase its general fund balance from approximately $68,000 to approximately $500,000.

“Sheriff Hensley is hopeful that when the county commission considers his budget request for 2017-18, it will recognize the sheriff’s department’s significance contribution to the county’s revenue and will use that additional revenue to enable Sheriff Hensley to hire additional deputies and correctional officers, increase salaries and benefits paid to the department’s existing deputies and correctional officers and make long-overdue and necessary improvements to the jail and jail annex,” the press release states.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.