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Unicoi County Sheriff Department seeking $1.3 million in new funding

Sue Guinn Legg • May 28, 2018 at 5:09 PM

In the Unicoi County Commission’s meeting on May 21, Chairwoman Marie Rice commented briefly on the challenges the commission is facing in its 2018-2019 budget deliberations, including a request for $1.3 million in new funding for the Sheriff’s Department

Sheriff Mike Hensley, who had not yet seen a final calculation of the insurance and benefits costs associated with his request for seven new officers, a new secretarial position and the transition of seven part-time employees to full-time, was at first taken back by the figure.

But after going over the numbers again, Hensley stood by his request, describing it as “crucial” to the safety of both the public and the department.

“My budget has gone up substantially and the reason is the same problems that existed in the past and were brought up in previous commission meetings as far back as three or four years were not addressed and not funded properly,” he said.

Hensley began a breakdown of his request for more funding with improvements to the fencing around the jail annex property, estimated at $60,000 and needed for compliance with state correctional standards.

The fence was also a sticking point in the commission’s 2016-17 budget, for which Hensley initially filed a notice of his intent to file suit against the county for alleged underfunding of public safety mandates.

While he later agreed to comply with the budget on the county’s agreement to fix the fence and estimates were obtained for the job, he said, an architectural firm’s assessment of the need increased the cost and ultimately the commission chose not to make the improvements. Since then, he said, the fence around the impound lot for confiscated vehicles located on the jail annex property has fallen and is now essentially nonexistent.

More crucial, Hensley said, is the county’s dependence on part-time jailers who have no benefits but are required to take the same training as full-time employees at the expense of county taxpayers.

During his time as sheriff, Hensley said 60 employees have left the department for employment at other agencies with better pay and better benefits. In order to stop the turnover, he is requesting a 5 percent pay increase for all his employees and the transition of seven part-time jailers to full-time. “I’ve got more part-time people working in the jails than I do full time,” he said.

Also crucial, Hensley said, is the department’s need for for additional officers and administrative staff, including two new investigators and a lead secretary. He said all will require extensive training in order to replace  long-time staff members in line for retirement.

“We have had an enormous increase in call volume. We have more events, more festivals, bike races, more requests for security. There is a need for more personnel at the courthouse, bailiffs and security. There has been an enormous increase in civil process, petitions and warrants that the sheriff’s department is required to serve,” he said.

“There has been an increase in training. It’s mandatory. I can’t leave the jail unattended while the jailers are training. Therefore I have to pay overtime for them to take this training.

“Comp time is not working for us. Comp time is great when you have enough people working to let people off to use their comp time. I don’t have enough people working, and that goes for the jails and the deputies.”

In addition to $60,000 for overtime, Hensley’s budget request includes a cross-trained, K-9 officer for drug detection and criminal search. And finally, he is asking for replacements for eight “old, worn out (Ford) Crown Victorias still on the road and still in use” on patrol.

“They are going to have to be replaced. I have argued this for years. In the past it was a need. Now it’s a necessity,” he said.

All total, the sheriff is asking for an additional $215,000 in funding for the jail, more than $135,000 for the jail annex and more than $689,000 for the department’s patrol, criminal investigation and drug enforcement divisions. The largest increase in each of those budgets by far, he said, is for pay and benefits.

“If they will give them this, it will do two things for the people of this county. We will have better, experienced officers and it will save taxpayers the expense of training employees for other departments outside our county.

“The total does come in around ($1.3 million) but a lot of this could have been avoided if it had been addressed in previous years.

“I want people to know and understand that in order for me to stay within the law, protect my department from liability and protect the people of this county, I have to have more help.”

The commission's next work session on the budget is scheduled for Wednesday.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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