DAWSONVILLE, Ga. – The bitter dispute between Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson and the Board of Commissioners will not be resolved until at least Feb 15.
After a two-day hearing in Senior Superior Court Judge Fred A. Bishop’s courtroom, Johnson’s attorney Joey Homans and County Attorney Lynn Frey agreed to have the sheriff and county officials meet again to see if they can resolve their differences.
“It seems to me there ought to be a face-to-face sincere sit down here between the two parties to see if there is some middle ground,” Bishop said. If the two sides do not agree, Bishop said he would render “an appropriate judgment.”
Homans petitioned the court for an order of mandamus to force the county to provide what he calls “a budget sufficient for the sheriff to perform his sworn duties.” In presenting his case Tuesday, Homans accused the county of “abuse of discretion” because commissioners made cuts to the sheriff’s proposed 2018 budget.
Homans rested his case Wednesday morning. Frey then made an opening statement before calling his only witnesses — Chief Financial Officer Vickie Neikirk and Board of Commissioners Chairman Billy Thurmond.
Frey began by stating the sheriff received 29 percent of all available funds in the 2018 budget. He also said Johnson got the largest increase of all general fund budgets and did not receive a cut in the previous year’s budget as Johnson has claimed.
Neikirk confirmed Johnson did receive an increase in his 2018 budget and that he received an increase in every line item but one. She also pointed out that the county’s tax revenue today is considerably lower than it was in 2008, before the recession, when it was about $12 million.
Thurmond testified that funds are tight. It cost the county $1 million to implement an across-the-board salary increase for county employees to address serious retention problems, he said. He also said the county was informed that it would cost an additional $300,000 to insure employees in 2018. Asked why the county didn’t approve the sheriff’s proposed budget, he said, “There wasn’t enough revenue.”
Asked about the positions that are frozen within the sheriff’s office, Thurmond said the sheriff has the authority, as a Constitutional officer, to fill those positions and that money can be moved from his line items to pay for salaries.
In his closing statement, Homans said, the Board of Commissioners abused their discretion in the cuts made to the sheriff’s proposed budget. “They really haven’t presented any evidence other than to say we don’t have the funds,” he said.
However, Frey countered by saying, “There is no reason to believe there has been an abuse of discretion, certainly nothing that would be a basis for mandamus or order to give more money to the sheriff. Mandamus is only available in a case of a clear legal right, and I don’t think he has shown a clear legal right to anything more than what they have given him.”
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