McHugh

CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals says a trial court improperly issued a writ of mandamus against the Greenbrier County Commission for reducing the county sheriff's budget.

The Court, in a Nov. 10 opinion, granted the commission's writ of prohibition, preventing the enforcement of the lower court's ruling.

Cabell Circuit Judge John L. Cummings, serving on special appointment in Greenbrier County, had found that the commission acted "arbitrarily" and "capriciously" by reducing Greenbrier County Sheriff James W. Childers' budget.

On May 20, Cummings issued a writ of mandamus against the commission, directing it to: 1) allocate sufficient funds in the fiscal year 2011-12 budget for the sheriff to fill any necessary vacant positions; 2) meet and confer with the sheriff to determine an amount that is fair and reasonable to uniform and train personnel and to discuss and resolve any other remaining budget items for fiscal year 2011-12; and 3) present a revised budget no later than June 7.

In response, the commission sought a writ of prohibition to prevent the enforcement of the trial court's order.

The state's high court, in its 19-page ruling, found the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction. Justice Thomas McHugh authored the Court's opinion.

McHugh said while the lower court stated appropriate grounds for issuing its writ, neither of the grounds "withstands scrutiny upon examination."

First, the trial court argued the commission's reduction in the sheriff's budget was arbitrary and capricious.

Not so, the Court said.

In its own review of the budget cuts, the Court found the cuts were not "random and without basis," as Childers claims. Quite the opposite is true, it said.

"Of the $144,814 reduction in the law enforcement salary and wages line item it appears that either $105,000 or $107,000 of that amount was due to the Sheriff's failure to hire three additional deputies for whom the Commission had included funds to cover their salaries in the preceding budget year," McHugh wrote.

"And, the record is clear, that in the event the Sheriff were to hire these additional employees, the Commission had indicated its willingness to provide the additional funds for their wages."

To look at the budget reduction without factoring in the substantial increase in funding that Childers had been provided the previous two budget years is "misleading," the Court said.

"Of further import to this case is the fact that the Sheriff was fully funded for all of his current employees and those employees, like all other county employees, had received a $100 increase in salary," McHugh noted.

In ruling that the commission misapprehended the law, the trial court also "wrongly injected" itself into fiscal matters "clearly reserved" for the commission, the Court said.

"Without identifying the specific law that the Commission acted in violation of or misapprehended, the trial court found that the Commission could not, as it had promised, set aside funds for the purpose of supplementing the Sheriff's law enforcement budget when and if the Sheriff were to hire additional deputies," McHugh explained.

"Counsel has not directed us to, and neither are we aware of, any law that would prevent the Commission from amending the budget mid-fiscal year to provide the necessary additional funds.

"Moreover, the Commission states that it routinely adds items to its budget during the course of a particular budget year."

The Court, in its ruling, also determined that the trial court's award of attorneys fees to Childers was improper.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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