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Unicoi Co. Sheriff's Office budget still in contention

August 27th, 2014 11:54 am by Brad Hicks

Unicoi Co. Sheriff's Office budget still in contention

ERWIN — In the midst of a meeting fraught with failed motions and impasses, Unicoi County Commissioner and Budget Committee Chairman Mickey Hatcher took a moment to apologize to the incoming county commissioners and members of the public in attendance.

“It looks like there’s not going to be any consideration from the majority of the County Commission to get anything passed,” Hatcher said. “If we don’t have a budget passed on time, you’re going to have to shut the schools down because the state money will not come. They’ll quit sending it in. Now we can sit back and puff our chests out and say ‘Who’s going to be the most powerful?’ This is not about the citizens anymore. This is about egos, and we don’t need that.”

Less than 24 hours after the commission voted to table its consideration of the first reading of the county’s 2014-15 budget, the commission’s Budget Committee met Tuesday to continue its efforts to prepare the financial document. While some progress was made, a proposed budget that had previously been a point of contention, perhaps the most controversial budget — that of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department — remains unsettled.

The UCSD was seeking $3,419,074 in overall funding for the new fiscal year, an increase over the department’s prior year budget of $3,108,367. Discussions regarding the department’s budget have ramped up recently and, while a number of proposed cuts and bottom line figures have been considered, none have been met with the committee’s approval.

Sheriff Mike Hensley said Friday that the committee’s failure to agree on his budget has forced him to park cruisers, cut staff and not fill open deputy positions since the county is operating under a continuing resolution. He also said revenue-generating state inmates would no longer be housed in the county’s jail facilities.

Commissioner Loren Thomas said he went over the department’s proposed line items, and made a motion that the department’s 2014-15 bottom line be set at $3,370,374. This motion failed due to the lack of a second. Thomas then revisited a previous proposal — to set the department’s overall budget at $3,327,682.

Hensley was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, but Chief Deputy Frank Rogers told commissioners present that any amount less than the $3,327,682 figure would cause the changes announced by Hensley last week to remain effective.

“We’re losing positions, we’re having to cut services, there’s nothing else we can do except send people home at this point,” Rogers said.

Rogers also told commissioners that state inmates were already being removed from the county, adding that 24 of the nearly 60 have been relocated. Rogers said the revenue generate by housing these inmates, around $694,000 last year, will be lost. Hatcher said, according to his math, the county would lose around $1,900 per day without the state inmates.

“We will save maybe $200,000 this year, but it’ll cost us three-quarters of a million dollars by the end of the fiscal year,” Rogers said. “It don’t make good sense to me. ... After all these cuts, we’re in worse shape than we are.”

Rogers said he feels the commission’s failure to agree upon a budget for the sheriff’s department may result from more than just cutting costs.

“I can tell you this right now, and I’m talking with the sheriff’s consent — we can resume county operations, bring back the people who have been forced out of work, and hang onto the revenue that we’ve got from the state inmates with the bottom line figure of $3,327,682,” Rogers said. “Without that, I think it’s been the intention of this commission to force us to sue, because it’s inevitable that a tax increase is going to happen and you need somebody to blame.”

Some in attendance said they would welcome a tax increase if it means the sheriff’s department and other departments can continue to offer services at adequate levels.

“We’ve got a good town and we’d like to keep it,” resident Ann Jones said. “If you’ve got to raise it, raise it.”

“If you all cut our sheriff’s department’s money like this, we’re going to have more drugs, meth labs, all this stuff coming through here,” Unicoi resident Ronnie Day said. “We don’t need it in our county. Everybody will go with that, I’m sure they will. If you have to raise the land taxes to make our sheriff’s department more efficient, that’s fine. I think we’ll all agree on that.”

By the time the committee was set to vote on the proposed $3,327,682 bottom line, only five commissioners were present. While four commissioners voted in favor of the proposal, the measure failed as Kenneth Garland cast the lone dissenting vote. Financial matters require approval from at least five members of the nine-member County Commission when a quorum is present.

Mayor Greg Lynch said if the sheriff’s department were to sue, a judge could order the county to restore employees and funding to the sheriff’s department. He said a suit could cost the county upward of $100,000 in attorneys’ fees alone.

“I think we should keep this in mind and try to keep dialog open,” Lynch said.

The committee took no further action regarding the UCSD’s proposed budget on Tuesday.

While the sheriff’s department’s budget has not yet been agreed upon, the committee did come to an agreement on the proposed budget of the Circuit Court clerk, although the committee did not arrive at this decision quickly.

The committee previously proposed trimming $56,804 from the proposed 2014-15 budget presented by Clerk Darren Shelton. Shelton has met with the committee several times since this proposed cut, each time stating that a funding reduction of this level would lead to the reduction of revenue-generating personnel in his office. Shelton reiterated this stance on Tuesday.

“If you cut positions, you’re going to cut these revenues out, which in turn is going to fall on the taxpayers,” Shelton said.

Shelton presented a proposed budget of $451,573 at Tuesday’s meeting. This is more than $5,000 less than the amount originally sought for the new fiscal year, which was around $50,000 less than the clerk’s actual 2013-14 expenditures.

Still, Gene Wilson motioned for the committee to stick with its original cut of $56,804. This motion was seconded by Garland. Shelton said he has repeatedly asked commissioners to spend time in his office to get an idea of the daily operations and presented them with a letter from a circuit judge calling on the panel to adequately fund Shelton’s office.

“You can get Obama to send me a letter and it ain’t going to affect me a bit,” Garland said.

“You’re going to save $13,000 and lose $100,000,” Shelton said. “It does not make any sense.”

But the motion failed to gain the committee’s approval, as did a motion made by Thomas. Thomas had proposed setting the department’s bottom line at the requested $451,573. Commissioner James Howell’s proposal of setting the department’s bottom line at $442,973, an amount Shelton previously said he could work with, was also voted down.

Thomas second motion regarding Shelton’s budget — setting the bottom line at $448,000 — was met with disapproval from the majority of commissioners present, and Thomas’ third motion to set the budget at $446,573, which represented an additional $5,000 cut to what Shelton proposed Tuesday, failed due to the lack of a second.

Hatcher proposed the county once again vote on Howell’s proposal, but this measure again failed. Garland’s proposal to set Shelton’s bottom line at $432,673 was also voted down.

Nearly 45 minutes into the conversation regarding his proposed budget, Shelton said he would “split the difference” between the $451,573 sought and the $432,673. Howell made a motion to this effect, but the majority of commissioners present cast dissenting votes.

Almost 15 minutes later, the committee took Shelton up on his offer to cut around $17,000 from his proposed maintenance and repair costs. Shelton said repairs could be paid from his department’s reserve fund as it is accumulated. This move would set Shelton’s bottom line at $430,880. The measure from Gene Wilson to set the funding at this amount was unanimously approved by commissioners present.

The committee also heard from Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle. Previously, the committee proposed cutting Tittle’s proposed 2014-15 budget by $5,800. Tittle said after “restructuring” her budget, she found that she could accommodate this request and had found an additional $200 that could be cut. This total cut of $6,000 would bring Tittle’s bottom line total to $182,198 for the new fiscal year. A measure to set her budget at this amount was approved. The committee also voted to set the 2014-15 budget of the assessor of property at $248,700, less than the approximately $252,000 sought.

The Budget Committee is scheduled to meet today and Thursday to continue budget discussions. The panel will likely continue its discussion regarding the sheriff’s department’s budget.

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