By Susan Redden
Members of the Jasper County Commission and Sheriff Archie Dunn were on opposite sides of the issue Monday during arguments on whether Dunn’s lawsuit against the commission and others should be dismissed.
For more than an hour, attorneys for the two sides debated the issues, which center primarily around conflicts concerning the county’s quarter-cent law enforcement sales tax. Judge Neal Quitno, of Vernon County, who was appointed to hear the case, took the arguments under advisement.
Norman Rouse, attorney for the County Commission, argued that the sheriff’s lawsuit should be dismissed. He contended that it did not meet requirements for the remedies sought, because there was no controversy to be decided by the court and because the sheriff had no legally protected interest in the outcome.
Dunn, among other things, is challenging commission action to replace a board he headed that allocated grants to other agencies from a share of the law enforcement sales tax.
“The grant board only aided the County Commission in making the appropriations,” Rouse said. “So when the commission named a new board, that was the only thing that changed.”
Dunn is asking the county to pay the cost of housing prisoners outside the county jail in Carthage, but Rouse said that “does not address requirements of county budget law for a contract and for it (the expenditure) to be included in his budget.”
Rouse said that issue would be better addressed in a lawsuit that has been filed by Henry County against Jasper County and Dunn, seeking to recover $135,000 in prisoner boarding fees for last year. He said $300,000 for boarding costs had been included in this year’s budget, but none has been spent.
Dunn’s lawsuit also challenges the commission’s decision to withhold from the sheriff law enforcement sales tax proceeds that were beyond the amount budgeted by the county auditor. Rouse said that issue was moot because it involved the 2011 budget year, which is over, and because the commission in the 2012 budget gave the sheriff nearly $137,000 more from the sales tax funds than he requested.
Another issue of the lawsuit focuses on whether funds from the sales tax can be used to maintain the county jail. Rouse said those expenditures would fall within the parameters of the ordinance that proposed the tax, which he said called for the money to be used for law enforcement services for the benefit of the sheriff’s office.
Rouse also disputed Dunn’s motion that the commission be required to pay attorney fees in the case, saying statutes are in place to allow the sheriff to pay his attorney.
Joplin attorney Bill Fleischaker, who represents Dunn, said the focus of the lawsuit is the law enforcement sales tax, and who controls expenditures of those funds. When the measure was put to county voters in 2005, he said, the ordinance that established it designated the only direct beneficiaries to be the sheriff’s office and the prosecuting attorney’s office. An agreement reached as part of the tax also fixed the amount the sheriff’s office could receive in general revenue at $500,000 below what the office received in 2005.
“The only way the sheriff could increase his budget would be through the growth of LEST funds, so he is impacted when the county takes that money and uses it for something other than sheriff’s operations,” Fleischaker said.
Fleischaker said state law makes inmate boarding and jail repairs obligations of the county, and that those expenditures should be paid through the general fund rather than by the sheriff.
“So when that doesn’t happen, the sheriff may not suffer a loss, but his agency does,” he said. “And statutes say the expenditure of LEST funds are to be controlled by the enabling ordinance (that established the tax).”
Fleischaker said the use of law enforcement sales tax funds for jail expenditures prompted a lawsuit in Adair County after the commission there decided to build a new jail, when voters were told the money would go for a jail expansion.
“Taxpayers brought the lawsuit, and the court of appeals agreed with them,” he said. “The commission can’t come back and amend the enabling ordinance because the tax was submitted to voters based on that language.”
Fleischaker said the sheriff had the right to move prisoners elsewhere because of overcrowding problems and that the cost should have been paid out of general revenue, adding, “That makes sense, since statutes make the commission responsible for maintaining county buildings.”
He said the commission will use sales tax funds for a jail project that is under way, reducing the funds available for sheriff’s operations.
“They’re deciding what happens and where the money comes from,” he said. “Let the sheriff run the sheriff’s office.”
Fleischaker said the commissioners should be ordered to pay attorney fees under a provision of the law that allows such orders in cases of “bad faith.” The commission’s actions against the sheriff have been “politically motivated,” he said.
JOHN BARTOSH, presiding county commissioner, and Jim Honey, Eastern District associate commissioner, were in the courtroom for Monday’s hearing, along with Sheriff Archie Dunn and two members of his command staff.