ERWIN — Sheriff Kent Harris is requesting more than $760,000 in additional funding for the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department in the upcoming fiscal year to bring the department into compliance with minimum standards.
A three-page document outlining and explaining Harris’ funding requests was delivered to the Unicoi County Commission on Thursday. Harris said Friday that he will not sign a letter of agreement with the county mayor pertaining to his department’s budget until his requests are “resolved.”
“Every request in there is due to safety of officers here at the department or public safety concerns to make sure the public has the best enforcement possible,” Harris said.
A large portion of what Harris is seeking is a one-time expense of $336,000 to purchase 12 new cruisers. Harris said the UCSD has 12 cruisers with more than 130,000 miles on each. Under state guidelines, units with more than 130,000 are pulled “off the line” due to officer safety and liability concerns. Harris said he has been approached by officers who have voiced concern about some UCSD vehicles becoming worn out.
“They’re out here driving sometimes at high speeds to get on a call, they’re driving in all types of weather, dangerous conditions, and I think it’s definitely something we’re going to have to do,” Harris said.
The department has not purchased a new cruiser since 2007, and cruisers were previously purchased through other funding sources, such as the UCSD’s drug fund, Harris said. Previous requests to fund cruiser purchases have been delayed by the commission.
Recurring costs make up around $425,000 of the requests. One such request, Harris said, is funding to hire four more full-time officers in the 2011-12 fiscal year at the cost of $96,160.
The department employs 23 officers, including the sheriff, all deputies and investigators, chief deputy and school resource officers. However, Harris said according to a Project America study, 2.3 officers are needed per 1,000 in population. With the county’s approximate population being 18,000, Harris said 42 officers would be needed to comply with figures from the study.
Harris said the department staffs three officers per shift, and the hiring of four additional officers would allow four officers to be assigned to each shift.
“It’s about officer safety,” Harris said of this request.
Eleven full-time correctional officers are needed at the Unicoi County Jail to meet state standards, Harris said. The jail employs seven full-time officers and two part-time officers. Harris said he would like to make the part-time employees into full-timers and hire two additional full-time correctional officers. This would come at an annual cost of $87,392, Harris said.
To comply with state standards, Harris also said nine full-time jailers are needed at the recently opened jail workhouse. The workhouse employs two full-time and four part-time officers. The annual cost would be $96,632, he said.
Other costs associated with the jail include the hiring of a full-time cook at an salary of $19,848 while retaining the current jail’s part-time cook, and the promotion of a part-time nurse to full-time status with the retention of a part-time nurse position. The additional annual cost associated with the jail’s nurses would be $28,080.
The UCSD has no full-time courthouse security officers, Harris said. Security at the Unicoi County Courthouse is conducted by four part-times officers. While Harris said these officers have done a good job, he said state law requires Peace Officer Standards and Training certified officers at courthouses. Because of this, he is seeking $72,120 annually to hire three full-time officers and is seeking to keep the part-time officers to fill in as needed.
Harris also is seeking $25,000 to hire an additional dispatcher for 911.
Also sought is a 10 percent pay increase for all UCSD employees. County employees have not had a raise in several years and, although previously discussed by commissioners, there is no pay scale in place within the UCSD, Harris said.
A pay scale that would pay officers according to experience would put the UCSD on par with other law enforcement agencies in the area and would prevent it from becoming a “training ground” for other agencies, Harris said.
“Harris also expressed concern with a recent motion passed by the commission’s Finance Committee that caps part-time county employee pay at $10 per hour. He said several part-time UCSD employees are paid more but may leave to seek another work environment if paid only at that amount.
To avert liability potential liability issues, Harris also said he wants to restructure how UCSD reserve officers are handled. Under the proposed restructuring, Harris said these officers would be used as a second officer and ride along with full-time officers going forward.
Harris said he is concerned the UCSD may not have the commission’s support in the event of a liability issue, hence the need for minimum standards needing to be met. He also said that he hopes to meet with commissioners and resolve his requests amciably. However, Harris said UCSD officials have been in contact with attorneys about representing the department in a Writ of Mandamus lawsuit if need be.
“If they don’t come up with the minimum standards due to liability, I’m not going to accept all this liability,” Harris said.
While he reiterated that he does not want the matter of his requests to come to litigation, Harris said many of the requests are concerns shared between him and his officer and that he will not “budge” on several of the requests.
County Commissioner and Finance Committee Chairman Bill Hensley said he expects the committee to address Harris’ requests with “thought, debate and reason” at some point, though an exact date for when it will address them has not yet been set.
“I can assure you and the public we will talk about this extensively,” Hensley said.