Looking back on Madison Co. budget woes, lawsuit

How budget issues led to a lawsuit between the sheriff and the county

MADISON CO., Tenn. — The Madison County mayor and sheriff are set to meet in court Tuesday.

The sheriff is suing the county for over $2 million, claiming they didn’t give him enough money to adequately run his department.

The county says there’s no more money left to give.

In February of last year, Sheriff John Mehr was over his original budget by almost $1 million, and commissioners were becoming increasingly worried about his spending.

“We just can’t continue down this path. We need to get something budgeted,” commissioner Doug Stephenson said.

Despite these issues, the county commission still approved $125,000 toward his budget for medical supplies.

“It has to do with the jail, the amount of inmates in the jail, and the jail is a big part of the sheriff’s department budget,” Sheriff Mehr said.

By March, county commissioners were at odds over whether to give the sheriff more money.

“It’s hard to try to maintain a budget with a business or an organization like the jail,” commissioner James Pearson said.

“It’s unsustainable right now. Over the past six years, the sheriff’s department budget has gone up over $6.5 million,” commissioner Jason Compton said.

For the first time, and in a split vote, the county commission denied the sheriff funds.

“He can find it in his budget,” Compton said.

But in a win for the sheriff in April, the commission awarded the sheriff the funds that were originally denied.

In May, the threat of a tax increase loomed as the sheriff asked for a $25 million budget for the next fiscal year, a $2 million increase.

“I know what I’ll have to do if I don’t get my budget, and I’ll do whatever it takes,” Sheriff Mehr said.

WBBJ 7 Eyewitness News reporter Julia Ewoldt asked the sheriff what he would have to do.

“I’m not going there,” Sheriff Mehr responded.

But it wasn’t long before the county took steps to protect themselves from the sheriff’s possible retaliation.

“I request a motion that we retain service from Rainey and Kizer with pending litigation from the sheriff,” Comptain said.

WBBJ 7 Eyewitness News reporter Julia Ewoldt asked the sheriff if he planned to sue the county.

“I don’t have any comment,” Sheriff Mehr said.

July 1, the county commission approved the 2019-2020 budget. It included $22.2 million for the sheriff’s office, not the requested $25 million.

That same month, the sheriff sued the county.

“The current funding that we received, it will not be sufficient. We barely made it through this last year,” Sheriff Mehr said in a news conference.

“There is more than adequate money there to operate that department,” Madison County Mayor Jimmy Harris said in response the next week.

The sheriff’s attorney told WBBJ 7 Eyewitness News that the sheriff would be open to mediation.

That never happened.

In the meantime, the sheriff’s office settled a lawsuit with a former employee for $1.3 million.

The county commission originally told him $1 million of that must come from his budget.

This put further strain on the relationship between the sheriff and the county commission.

“We’re having difficulty understanding how somebody can manage their funds the way that they’re managing them, which I say is very, very inept at best,” Stephenson said.

Then in December, it was time to make the first payment on the lawsuit: $425,000.

“I assume it can come out of the jail some way,” Sheriff Mehr said.

But since the sheriff’s office is funded directly by the county commission, commissioners say the move might be futile in the long run.

“It makes a statement,” Madison County Commission Chairman Gary Deaton said. “Who is responsible for the lawsuit? Is the county commission responsible for the lawsuit? No. The things that happened there had been going on, and the sheriff’s department was very aware of the situation.”

At the same meeting, the county commission approved $300,000 so the sheriff could make a new contract with their medical provider.

In January, it was almost a year since commissioners told WBBJ 7 Eyewitness News they were worried about the sheriff’s spending, and they confronted him in the joint meeting between the budget and financial management committees.

“They’ve never made any effort in the budget to work to stay within that budget or to cut. You know these expenses are coming. You need to hold back somewhere and try to help out and pay for some of this. There’s just been absolutely no effort whatsoever in my opinion,” commissioner Mike Taylor said.
“I would disagree with you,” Sheriff Mehr said.
“Well show us. Show us,” Mayor Harris said.
“We’ll show you our numbers,” Sheriff Mehr said.
“You looked at the numbers. They’ve increased every year. You’ve gone over your budget most every year,” Mayor Harris said.

The county commission then decided to concede to the sheriff’s wishes. The first payment of $425,000 came from the general fund.

Now the lawsuits and overages might start affecting other departments and organizations.

“Other departments are saying, ‘You’ve asked us to watch our budgets. You’ve asked us to work within our budgets.’ We’ve got a situation now with this lawsuit that it’s causing a lot of, in my opinion, a lot of morale issues,” Stephenson said.

And if the sheriff gets what he wants from the current lawsuit, the county could be in deep trouble.

“If that were to go through, to the tune of $2 million to $2.5 million, we could be down to an almost $0 fund balance,” said finance director Karen Bell.

Now we’ve reached February, a whole year from where we first brought you, and eight months since the sheriff filed the lawsuit.

In the first court hearing, county commissioners told WBBJ 7 Eyewitness news they hope the case is dropped. If it’s not, it’s expected to go to trial.

But both sides of the case, the commission and the sheriff’s office, are funded by you, the taxpayer, and you have to pay either way this turns out.

Construction on the new jail has officially begun.

The county commission took out a loan to fund that $50 million project, and the sheriff has said in past interviews that it will cost more to run than the jail we have now.

The county commission and the sheriff are expected to be in court Tuesday for a hearing in the sheriff’s lawsuit.

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