Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Is the Jefferson County Commission failing in its duty?

Many outside of Jefferson County may not be aware that Jefferson County Sheriff David Davenport has filed suit over recent budget cuts in the Sheriff's Department-cuts that have forced Sheriff Davenport to lay off needed personnel. For his own part, the Sheriff says that he was required to file the suit under State law because the cuts leave his department unable to effectively function. In the suit, Davenport names Jefferson County Mayor Alan Palmieri as the Defendant.

By law, Palmieri must serve as the Defendant in this case because he is the county's chief executive. Both the Sheriff and the Jefferson County Standard Banner -the twice weekly publication that passes for a local newspaper in these parts, admit that the suit isn't aimed at Palmieri, but is aimed at the Jefferson County Commission which authorized the cuts. It would be very easy for someone outside the county to say "guess that means you need a tax increase." Well, we are about to have one-property taxes will be raised this year. The Commission is already anticipating the additional revenue from that increase. There was the obvious initial argument over whether the increase was needed, but now that it is certainly coming, we really ought to ask the question as to where the money is going.

In Jefferson County, there are five incorporated municipalities: New Market, Jefferson City, Dandridge, Baneberry, and White Pine. Outside of those places (which encompasses most of the county) the Sheriff and his men are the only local law enforcement. Without significant county coverage, it is very possible that crimes could be committed and the Sheriff would not be able to respond for lack of adequate manpower. It is simple to say "the county is in a budget crunch (again, something the Commission should be able to anticipate well ahead of time) and the cuts have to come somewhere." Perhaps this is so, and everyone wants their piece of the pie and everyone else to suffer except them. The problem with shifting the budget cuts to the Sheriff's Office is that the enforcement of the law is a basic and required function of county government-there is effectively no county if there is no law enforcement.

Under the Tennessee Constitution, the County Sheriff is a constitutional officer, meaning that his office must exist and operate effectively in order for the government of the county to function in the manner in which State law requires. In filing this suit, Sheriff Davenport is telling the State that the cuts made by the County Commission leave his office unable to function in the way that the Constitution requires it to do. What does it say about the County Commission's ability to manage our money effectively if it cannot adequately fund the most basic and necessary office of local government in this State-that of the County Sheriff-but it can increase our taxes while failing in this most basic duty?



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