Sheriff shares ‘difference of opinion’ on state auditor’s finding

Published 2:07 pm Monday, March 28, 2022

BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR STAFF
A recently released state auditor’s report contradicts Sheriff Dexter Lunceford’s belief that he does not need to provide county officials with a letter of agreement detailing deputy hirings and salaries.
According to the finding, the sheriff did not obtain a letter of agreement or file suit in Circuit Court to authorize the number and salaries of his deputies. Section 8-20-101, Tennessee Code Annotated, requires the sheriff to enter into a letter of agreement with the county mayor concerning the number and the salaries of deputies or to file suit in Circuit Court.
The sheriff said his interpretation is that the statute does not require him to obtain a letter of agreement or file suit in Circuit Court. “I’ve done my homework, and even the CTAS (County Technical Assistance Service) supervisor was shocked when I showed it to him over at the courthouse where it said ‘may’ instead of ‘shall’ in regard to the statute.”
Lunceford said the issue remains a “difference of opinion.” The issue has been ongoing for the last two years as the county cited in each of the audits.
“I have talked to CTAS, and a majority of sheriffs in the state don’t do a letter of agreement,” Lunceford said. “It had never been mentioned … until we got a new auditor the year before last. No sheriff in Carter County has ever signed a letter. It’s frustrating. I can’t help but believe that it’s political.”
Earlier this year, Lunceford shared a Feb. 4, 2021, letter from county attorney Josh Hardin who had reviewed the matter.
“Based upon the information that we discussed, I agree with you that there should not be an audit finding,” Hardin said in that letter. “If there is a finding for your office solely for not filing a letter of agreement between you and the County Mayor regarding the number of deputies or the amount of compensation budgeted for your office, that appears to be just plain wrong.”
Hardin also issued his opinion to Lunceford in regard to the statutory scheme set forth in TCA 8-20-101 et seq.
“It is clearly intended as a mechanism for the Sheriff or other county officials to institute litigation against the county to increase the number of deputies/assistants needed in their respective offices and/or the related salaries and expenses to operate said offices.
“The procedures set forth in the statute are permissive and not mandatory. If the auditors are specifically referring to 8-20-101 (c), the word ‘may’ in subsection (c)(1) clearly indicates a letter of agreement is not required and the subsequent portions of the subsection concerning where the letters ‘shall’ be filed are only applicable if the letter of agreement is desired by the official in the first place.”
Financial Management Committee chairman Brad Johnson said in January that the county needed to ask the state’s Attorney General to make a final determination to get clarification whether the unresolved issue should be a finding by auditors.
“We ran into other items that were still questionable as to compliance with the 81 Act and the policy and procedures for the financial management of this county,” Johnson said during a commission meeting.
On Friday, Johnson said that the committee “was in a holding pattern” waiting for a response.
“We instructed Attorney Hardin in January to submit a letter to the state attorney to address the actions of an office holder and to recommend a course of action to be taken based on his opinion,” said Johnson. “We are waiting for the Attorney General to respond to our request.”

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