A small group of Unicoi County residents are questioning some of the budgetary funding requests made by Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris for his department and are concerned about the financial impact the funding could have on the county’s citizens.
Erwin resident John Day, who serves as the group’s spokesman, said the group began researching the sheriff’s requests after Harris discussed them with the media. If funding for the requests is granted, Day said it could have a significant impact on Unicoi County’s taxpayers.
“We are not attacking this sheriff,” Day said. “We are very supportive of the sheriff and the sheriff’s department, so this is not an attack on the sheriff. This is just a group of people concerned about the efficiency of this government in Unicoi County and Erwin, and the impact of the costs on its residents. We are fully supportive, in every way, of our county and city governments and the law enforcement folks.”
Still, Day said the group’s current focus is on the efficiency of local law enforcement.
Harris sent a letter to Unicoi County Commissioners earlier this month outlining and explaining his requests for nearly $800,000 in additional funding in the 2011-12 fiscal year. Harris previously said the funding is necessary to bring the UCSD into compliance with minimum state standards and that he will not sign a letter of agreement with the county mayor pertaining to his department’s budget until the requests are resolved.
The UCSD currently employs 23 officers, but Harris stated in his letter that 42 officers would be needed to bring the department into compliance, citing a Project America study that says 2.3 officers are needed per 1,000 in population. Unicoi County’s population is approximately 18,000.
Harris requested funding in the amount of $96,160 to hire four additional full-time officers in the 2011-12 fiscal year, which would allow the department to staff four officers to each shift.
Day said between the UCSD and Erwin Police Department, Unicoi County has 36 law enforcement officers. However, he said that Johnson County, which as of the 2010 census has around 70 fewer residents than Unicoi County and is around 120 square miles larger, has 25 officers between that county’s sheriff’s department and the Mountain City Police Department.
Day also said the International Association of Chiefs of Police disregards the figure from the Project America study and refers to the study as “totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing.”
To address staffing, Day said the group would like to see the UCSD utilize an independent agency to develop a study to show what the department’s staffing needs are.
“The way to do this is to have a scientific analysis done by an independent agency who are experts in the field,” he said.
Harris also requested the retention of a part-time nurse and the funding for a full-time nurse for the county’s jail. The additional funding associated with this request would be approximately $28,000.
Day said that according to state law and standards from the Tennessee Corrections Institute, any medical work performed in jails across the state must be performed by or under the direction of a licensed physician. Day said state codes and standards require only that jails provide inmates with adequate medical care and physicals to prevent contagious diseases.
“There’s nothing that stipulates he’s got to have a full-time person on staff to do that,” Day said.
Another request made by the sheriff concerns the hiring of a full-time cook at an annual salary of approximately $20,000 while retaining the jail’s current part-time cook. Harris also seeks to have a dietician brought on staff to prepare meal plans for inmates and to avert potential liability issues that could arise from using a dietician outside of the UCSD.
Day said state codes and standards requires that a jailer only furnish adequate food and bedding. He said food could be brought to the jail a number of ways to meet this requirement.
While Day said TCI standards call for a dietician to be used to prepare meal plans for jails, he said it does not state that the dietician is required to be an employee of the jail or sheriff’s department.
“It doesn’t have to be somebody who works for the department, it could be somebody who works anywhere in Tennessee,” Day said.
Jail staffing in general is also a concern for the group, Day said. Harris is requesting more than $87,000 to hire two more full-time officers at the county jail and move two part-time employees there into full-time status. He is also requesting approximately $97,000 to bring the recent opened jail annex up to standards with staffing.
In his letter to commissioners, Harris said standards call for one officer to be staffed for every 100 inmates at a jail facility. Day, however, contends that the group he represents and is part of could not find this ratio as a required or suggested standard in any documentation.
Day also said that Harris may have “misinterpreted” standards concerning the staffing of male and females officers at county jails. He said that according to TCI standards, it is not necessary to staff a female officer at a jail at all times, only that jails have a female officer “on duty or on call” to perform searches and welfare checks on female inmates.
“That doesn’t mean you have to have both a man and woman both working that jail 24/7,” Day said.
A large portion of Harris’ funding request is for the replacement of 12 cruisers with more than 130,000 miles on each of them. Harris previously said that under state guidelines, units with more than 130,000 miles are pulled “off the line.” To replace these vehicles, Harris is requesting more than $330,000 in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Day said his group is questioning why the department provides each of its officers, including auxiliary officers, with a vehicle to take home when off duty rather than having officers drive their personal vehicles to the department and utilizing cruisers while on duty. Day said the group wants justification of this and Harris’ other requests.
“I think we deserve the answers if we’re going to pay for it,” he said.
The group is prepared to ask for a list of county and town of Erwin vehicles and who they are assigned to, and a breakdown on the day-to-day cost of operations for the UCSD, Day said. He said it is also questioning the need for UCSD substations. The UCSD has substations in the town of Unicoi and the Ernestville community.
Day said property tax increases associated with funding some of the requests may be unaffordable to some of the county’s residents.
“If we’ve got those people at the poverty level and you say ‘well, $400 a year is not going to be a lot on your property taxes.’... $4 a year to people at the poverty level is important,” he said.
Day was in attendance at a Tuesday meeting of the Unicoi County Finance Committee and was asked by the committee’s chairman Bill Hensley to return when the board discusses the UCSD budget in a couple of weeks.
UCSD Administrative Assistant Robie Sullins said the sheriff understood when he submitted his funding requests that it would attract questions from the public. Those questions, he said, will be addressed when the finance committee meets to discuss the sheriff’s budget July 21.