Proposal on SROs hits snag at county Budget Committee

Gary B. Gray • Feb 13, 2013 at 9:08 PM

Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes on Wednesday morning approached the large table at which the County Commission’s Budget Committee was meeting and informed members that Sulphur Springs Elementary School had been locked down but that the all clear had sounded soon after.

Apparently, a student delivered a threatening text, but sheriff’s deputies had resolved the situation. This was less than 24 hours after Sheriff Ed Graybeal, with Dykes at his side, recommended to the commission’s Public Safety Committee that commissioners fund nearly $1.8 million to add 10 school resource officers this year so the sheriff’s office could begin the hiring process.

But Dykes never said a word about SROs at the Budget Committee meeting. He ran through some budget numbers, which included a gloomy revenue forecast. He also talked a bit about capital improvements. Leighta Laitinen, chief operating officer for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, held a large bundled file full of information on which was marked “SROs.” When asked by the Johnson City Press if funding for the officers would be an issue laid on the table, she answered, “only if they ask us to.”

County Mayor Dan Eldridge and committee members did finally broach the topic, but it was not until the last few minutes of a three-hour meeting. The subject was brought up by County Commissioner Pete Speropulos, who is a member of both the Public Safety and Budget committees.

In the end, the committee agreed the matter should be sent back to the Board of Education for further streamlining.

“Communication needs to be given to the board that the Budget Committee is waiting to hear from them,” said County Attorney John Rambo.

Though the county total for the officers is closer to $1 million, the county must share money spent for educational purposes with the Johnson City School System, which brings the one-year, or startup cost to about $1.8 million.

“I’m disappointed the subject was brought up when neither I nor the sheriff were there,” Dykes said. “The subject would have to have been on the Budget Committee’s agenda. I was certainly ready to discuss it, but only the mayor can answer the question of why the subject was not brought up.”

Eldridge said he did not want anyone to think he or the Budget Committee was trying in any way to stall the process, though he did add that the full commission likely would want to fund the positions.

“This is just too important — we’ve got to get it right,” he said. “It needs to go from step one to step two, and the County Commission will make the final determination on this.”

Speropulos made a motion Tuesday for the Public Safety Committee to approve the 10 SROs so it could move on to the Budget Committee. Ten additional SROs would take the total number to 16, which would be enough to have an officer stationed at each school in Washington County.

“Director Dykes and the sheriff both came to us with this proposal,” Speropulos said Wednesday.

“Well, is this the Budget Committee’s problem or is it the school board’s?” said committee member Mitch Meredith. “How can we dictate SROs to them? My question is, has the school board done this. Have they suggested this?”

The answer is no, not yet.

Eldridge then read aloud his comments on the subject, which were published in the Press Wednesday, beginning with a reminder that the committee should not expect any federal assistance to fund the officers.

He called the issue “emotionally and politically charged” but one that also has a real sense of urgency. He also said he would rather wait until the Board of Education performs a full assessment of its vulnerabilities and security needs.

“I say that because I’ve not heard from the school board,” he said Wednesday, speaking to Budget Committee members. “I’ve asked Sherry (Greene) to pull the last 12 months of the board’s meetings. My concern is at the end of the day, the school board is responsible. We need to have them come to us and say, ‘we’ve evaluated this, and we feel we need the money.’ ”

Meredith asked Speropulos if he wanted to see the entire $1.8 million spent this year.

“My opinion is we need to go ahead and at least see how we can fund it,” Speropulos said. “This is a good road map. What I wanted to do was have this come to the Budget Committee. We can’t just pull a million dollars out of the air. By the time these guys (pointing at the Press reporter) get this out, we’re going to hear about it.”

Meredith referred to the start-up costs of hiring the officers in this way: “That’s property taxes there.”

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