Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr sues city over budget

Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr is suing the Columbus city government on claims the mayor and council overstepped their authority by taking control of his fiscal year 2015 budget.

The suit says the sheriff submitted a proposed budget of $26,853,715, but the mayor or “someone acting on her behalf” substituted a budget of $24,827,343 for the sheriff’s office, cutting it by more than $2 million.

That violates the city charter, the sheriff claims: “The charter does not authorize the mayor to submit a proposed budget to the sheriff.”

The sheriff Tuesday night declined to comment on the suit, referring inquiries to his attorneys: "I think my attorneys did a very good job outlining my issues during this whole process."

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the budget numbers cited in the lawsuit are incorrect because they don’t include all the money the sheriff gets. The office’s entire budget for fiscal year 2015 is $27.67 million, more than the $27.27 million it got in fiscal 2014.

“They have tried to find a way to make his budget look like it was smaller than it was the year before,” Tomlinson said. “His budget is $400,000 more this year than last year, and that is an indisputable fact.”

Darr’s lawsuit claims that in the city’s overall budget proposal for this fiscal year that began July 1, City Manager Isaiah Hugley included the mayor’s proposed budget for the sheriff’s office instead of the sheriff’s, though the sheriff “is the budget officer for the sheriff’s department.”

Darr afterward circumvented the city manager by sending his own budget proposal directly to city councilors, who during meetings on June 10 and June 17 rejected the sheriff’s budget and adopted the one submitted by city administrators.

The suit claims the city charter requires that the sheriff submit his budget to the city manager for inclusion in the city’s overall budget, not that city administrators tell the sheriff what his budget will be. It also maintains that Georgia law requires the sheriff’s budget be sufficient to operate the office for a year.

Tomlinson said the sheriff is wrong about the city charter: “The charter is very clear,” she said. “All elected officials are to submit their budgets to the city manager Then the city manager working with the mayor to present the mayor’s proposed budget. That is what was done.”

She cited this excerpt from the charter: “All elective officers such as the sheriff, tax commissioner, judge of probate court, coroner ... which receive appropriations from the council, shall prior to the commencement of each fiscal year prepare and submit to the city manager annual operating and capital budget requests for the ensuing fiscal year. Such budget requests shall be incorporated into the overall consolidated government budget for submission by the mayor to the council.”

Hugley said he had not read the sheriff’s lawsuit: “I cannot comment without reviewing it, and I will probably refer it to our legal department,” Hugley said. “But I can tell you we do follow the budget process in accordance with the charter.”

The suit says that in approving the budget for the sheriff’s office, the council agreed to review it at mid-year if city Finance Director Pam Hodge could not find sufficient cuts to reduce costs. That illegally shifted authority over the sheriff’s operations to the finance director, the suit says.

The city charter states that if Columbus Council fails to adopt a budget for the next fiscal year by July 1, the budget for the previous year remains in force on a monthly basis until a new one’s approved, the suit says. So Darr claims he should be allowed to operate on his fiscal year 2014 budget until council adopts one that is “legal.”

The suit filed Monday in Muscogee Superior Court asks the court to order the city to set aside the sheriff’s budget that council adopted and fully fund the one the sheriff proposed, and to pay the sheriff’s legal fees, as the sheriff claims City Attorney Clifton Fay has a conflict of interest in trying to represent both the city government and the sheriff in a dispute between the two.

Along with its other claims, the lawsuit cites these examples of insufficient appropriations in the sheriff’s budget:

The substituted budget had $15,000 for “education, training, travel and conferences” for sheriff’s employees, though the sheriff wanted $35,000.

The council approved $311,300 for bailiffs and courtroom security, though the sheriff requested $681,000, which the suit says was the actual amount spent in fiscal year 2013. City administrators cut the appropriation in half with no explanation of how the sheriff’s office is to fulfill its duty to provide courtroom security with 50 percent less money, according to the lawsuit.

The budget the city approved cut $621,484 in what it called “salary savings,” or leaving vacant positions unfunded. Should the sheriff want to fill a vacancy, he must seek council’s permission, even if he has the funds to fill it in his budget, the suit says, claiming this illegally shifts the sheriff’s authority over his office to the councilors.

The city’s budget for the sheriff’s office has $200,000 for motor vehicle fuel, though the sheriff sought $295,000.

Though the law requires the sheriff to provide adequate healthcare for jail inmates and he has little control over their medical needs, the council appropriated $4,156,449 for that, though the sheriff wanted $4,645,449.

The lawsuit notes also that city leaders have said they will borrow from the sheriff’s fiscal year 2016 budget if he can’t stick to the budget approved for this fiscal year. It asks that the court prohibit such action.

He is represented by attorneys Larry Walker, Kellye Moore and W. Kerry Howell of the Perry, Ga., law firm Walker, Hulbert, Gray and Moore. Tomlinson said the city has retained the Hatcher-Stubbs firm and The Carter Schodelmayer Firm to defend the suit.

She called Darr’s lawsuit “odd.”

“He is using taxpayer money to sue the taxpayers to get more money for his budget,” she said.

Tomlinson said the city asked to meet with Darr’s attorneys to discuss the issue, but they refused. “It is unfortunate the way he wants to go about this,” she said.

The sheriff has overspent his budget by $11.3 million over the past six years, she said: “We can show for certain that it is not exclusively related to cost overruns in the jail. It relates to duplicative law enforcement services and questionable management.”