Public protection does not come cheap.
The Washington County Budget Committee on Thursday deferred action for now regarding funding for 10 new School Resource Officers pending the outcome of state legislation that addresses the issue, an opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, Jr. and a recommendation from a combination of the county’s Education Committee, Public Safety Committee and Sheriff’s Office.
“So, that brings it back to this committee,” said County Mayor Dan Eldridge. “I offered to hire a third party. We still are not clear legally whether we would have to share the expense with Johnson City Schools, and we’re talking about $1.4 million in recurring costs.”
Eldridge made the offer to pay a third party to thoroughly assess proposed implementation of the SROs from his own budget, but that has so far drawn no public response. Eldridge also wrote Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes last month asking that board members address the proposal and report back to him with more details about how the plan would work.
At Thursday’s Budget Committee meeting, Dykes’ response was distributed. He says in the communique that board members reviewed the campus safety/security measures that are currently in place and that he and board members stood behind the Sheriff’s Office and Public Safety Committee recommendation that 10 SROs be added.
“I still stand behind that statement,” Dykes said. “I can understand the County Commission’s need to determine whether the revenue sharing will affect the county. I’m not sure, however, that should drive the funding. Outside of that, it’s always a good sign that they’re discussing the matter.”
County Attorney John Rambo said at this point he could not properly advise the Budget Committee whether to place the funds in the Sheriff’s budget, the schools’ budget or the county’s budget.
“The fact that we are asking all these questions tells me these are public safety officers,” he said. “They would work for a certain period of time at schools. Also, if the dollars must be shared, Johnson City is not bound by law to spend their share on school security.
“There still are varying opinions. A recent opinion said if the money is going into the Sheriff’s Department, it doesn’t have to be shared. We’ve posed that question. We also want to find out if using existing Sheriff’s Department equipment for school safety — does that have to be shared. We need to get it right.”
At a Safety Committee meeting earlier this month, Sheriff Ed Graybeal said it was going to initially cost about $1 million to add 10 SROs to the ranks of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Those additional SROs would take the total number to 16, allowing each school in the county to covered by an SRO.
The initial cost breaks down to about $98,000 per officer. A little more than $41,000 covers an officer’s annual salary and benefits. The remaining costs are related to a vehicle, weapons, uniform and other equipment.
“So they’re saying they don’t want to do an audit to determine whether this is the best way to go?” asked Budget Committee member Joe Grandy. “Where does that leave us now? If we had that, it would give both the county and the school board assurance that tax dollars are being used wisely and that the threats are being properly addressed.”
Eldridge said there are six bills working through the General Assembly regarding SROs — three that would place the state in a position to help pay a portion of security costs. He also said Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed reinstating a $35 million line item into the coming state budget that applies to school security.
For example, HB 269 would require each school to have at least one SRO beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, and the state would handle the entire expense, not school systems. HB 267 gives boards of education the option, by majority vote, to hire part-time, reserve and auxiliary officers. HB 504 would create a district-wide plan in which an SRO would be required to be present at each school during school hours, and state funds would help pay for those officers.
“We’re just at the beginning of knowing how this thing is going to unfold,” Eldridge said.
Budget Committee member Ethan Flynn told members that the cost “is almost equivalent to building another school, and when you do that you hire architects and designers.”