By a vote of five to zero with three commissioners absent, the Unicoi County Commission voted Monday to use $77,000 of its $1.1 million undesignated fund balance to purchase and equip two four-wheel drive patrol vehicles at an estimate cost of a cost of $38,500 each.
The vote came after an hour-long discussion and failed votes on a two prior motions to purchase three fully outfitted Explorers for a total of just over $115,00 and to lease six Explorers for a total of $188,672 that did not include the estimated $48,000 cost of equipping the six vehicles with cages, sirens, lights and other police equipment.
Craig Masters, chief administrative officer for the sheriff's department, presented the initial lease proposal, telling the commission the department has seven Crown Victorias that are quickly reaching the point they are no longer safe to drive.
Calling the state of the sheriff's department fleet an emergency situation, Commissioners Glenn White, Loren Thomas and John Mosley led the push for new vehicles through a succession of three votes before finding the majority needed for the cash purchase of two Explorers.
Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson left the meeting after voting against an initial motion for the six vehicle lease, saying he would never vote to use taxpayer money to lease an automobile because of the interest payment. Before leaving the meeting Wilson said he was willing to “vote tonight” for drawing from the fund balance to purchase six front-wheel drive sedans that he said could “can go anywhere an all-wheel drive can go” and at less cost.
Masters and Sheriff Mike Hensley held out for the four-wheel drive with Masters telling the commission some mountain roads in the county are “too rough” for a front-wheel drive car and the sheriff telling the commission that four-wheel drive was a better fit for the work his department is called to do in the mountainous county.
As the discussion expanded to the need for unmarked police cars for two investigators who are using their personal vehicles for sheriff’s department duties and for using the department’s anticipated drug fund proceeds for the purchase of those vehicles, County Attorney Doug Shults, County Clerk Mitzi Bowman and Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice alternately cited a need for public notice of any action beyond discussion and vote on the lease proposal included on their Monday night agenda.
Thomas argued the patrol deputies were in an emergency situation and made a motion for the agenda to be amended for the consideration of what turned out to be the winning motion on the police cars.
Addressing Rice and Commissioner Jason Harris as “those who voted no,” Thomas asked what it would take to get them to support a vote for sheriff’s department vehicles without delaying the issue until January.
Harris indicated he would consider the purchase of two vehicles and Thomas subsequently made the motion to buy the Explorers.
The motion was approved by unanimous vote with Commissioners Wilson, Bridgett Peters, Ken Garland absent.
When Rice expressed concern new Explorers purchased by the county in the past had been assigned to ranking officers rather than patrol officers, Hensley assured the commission the new Explorers will go to patrol deputies.
Hensley also said, for safety reasons and to avoid someone being hurt, the Crown Victorias will not be used by investigators or other department employees but “will come off the road.”
In other business on Monday, the commission voted to appoint James Mumpower to replace a retired member of the county’s Industrial Development Board and to change Unicoi County Session Court Judge David Shults employment status to full time and to increase his salary by $20,000 due to increases in the county’s sessions and juvenile case loads over the past 19 years.
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