The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

August 2, 2012

Guest columnist, Bill Fleischaker: Sheriff trying to fulfill obligation

JOPLIN, Mo. — For several months I have been representing Jasper County Sheriff Archie Dunn in a legal action against the Jasper County Commission. My client has been accused of being stubborn and unwilling to work with the County Commission. Before voting in the primary election, county residents need to know what the suit is about.

When Dunn came into office the Jasper County Sheriff’s Department was underfunded, underequipped and undertrained. The county budget did not allow sufficient funding to pay the salaries that would draw trained law enforcement personnel. As a result, when Dunn came into office he proposed that the county enact a law enforcement sales tax to create revenue to fund the operations of the department. The ordinance approved by the County Commission submitting the LEST to the voters contained provisions providing that the tax revenue could only be used for the Jasper County prosecuting attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department. The ordinance called for the appointment of a LEST Grants Board to recommend a portion of the tax revenue be made available to some local law enforcement agencies to enable them work with the sheriff’s department to improve public safety.

 The ordinance put the sheriff in charge of appointing the members of the board. Through 2010, grants were awarded to local agencies to enable them to work with the sheriff in protecting county residents. Several law enforcement agencies complained to the County Commission that they were not receiving benefit of the grants. Unfortunately, the commissioners did not explain to these individuals that the ordinance did not provide for general grants to local agencies, but rather only provided for grants for the purposes of enabling the local agencies to work with the sheriff’s department. In April 2011, the County Commission amended the ordinance that had been approved by the voters and took the power to award the grants away from the sheriff’s department and appointed a new panel. The sheriff believes that action contradicted the will of the voters by allowing law enforcement agencies other than the sheriff’s department and the prosecutor’s office to receive funds for whatever purpose they wanted. It is the sheriff’s position that the commission did not have the authority to amend an ordinance which had been approved by the voters. One of the purposes of the lawsuit is to ask the court to enforce the ordinance approved by the voters.

In the spring of 2011, the sheriff received letters from representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union threatening to file suit against the sheriff because of conditions created by overcrowding in the Jasper County Jail. As a result of the communication, Dunn determined it was in the best interest of the county to move some of the prisoners to other jails that were willing to take them. Missouri statutes specifically authorize a sheriff to do this when he believes that the local jail is insufficient to safely house the prison population and provide that when a sheriff does this the county is responsible for the cost of housing the prisoners in other counties. Nevertheless, the County Commission has refused to pay the bills from the other counties for boarding the prisoners and as a result the sheriff was required to withdraw the prisoners from other counties and return them to the county jail, resulting in a dangerous overcrowding situation. In the lawsuit, the sheriff is asking the court to determine whether or not he is entitled to transfer prisoners to other jails and have the county commission pay for that cost out of general revenue. In the meantime, the county commission withheld over $200,000 of the sheriff’s LEST money from the 2012 budget to pay the other counties’ bills for boarding prisoners.

In addition to the overcrowding in the county jail, the sheriff’s employees have encountered serious problems in operating the jail because the central locking system that controls all of the door locks and the entire lighting system in the jail are worn out. As a result, prisoners have occasionally been able to exit their cells into common areas of the jail when they are supposed to be locked down. This threatens the welfare of the other inmates as well as the sheriff’s employees. According to Missouri statutes, the jail is owned by the county and the county is responsible for the upkeep of the building. Nevertheless, the commission takes the position that the repairs to the jail are the responsibility of the sheriff and is withholding approximately $200,000 a year of the LEST funds to pay for repairs of the jail. The lawsuit asks the court to decide whether or not the commission is entitled to use LEST funds for repairs to the jail.

As a result of the actions of the commission, almost $400,000 is being removed from the sheriff’s annual budget. Since 2006 when the county began collecting the LEST, the sheriff has planned the operations of his department based on the assumption that his department would receive the full amount of the LEST proceeds. The department staffing and equipment purchases were planned on having that amount of money available. The commission waited until September 2011 to advise the sheriff that it was going to withhold these sums from the sheriff’s budget. The law requires the sheriff to submit a proposed budget to the county commission in September of each year. The sheriff was given almost no time to try to rearrange his long-term planning to account for the loss of almost $400,000 in funding.

Unless the sheriff’s full funding is restored, he will have no alternative but to reduce staff levels, which means that there will be fewer deputies and fewer vehicles patrolling the county. The commission’s actions are directly endangering the welfare of the citizens of Jasper County.

Dunn is not being stubborn, but when it comes to public safety, there is no room for compromise. All he is trying to do is to fight to maintain the revenue that he worked so hard to get and to keep the commitment that he made to the citizens of Jasper County when he promoted the sales tax in 2005.

Bill Fleischaker is a Joplin attorney and is providing legal representation to Archie Dunn.

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