ERWIN — In the middle of Thursday’s meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee, Commissioner Loren Thomas commented that he was surprised how well the meeting was going as he and others were expecting it to be contentious.
However, the meeting did not conclude that way, as it was followed by a brief melee involving several in attendance.
The committee, made up of county commissioners, met Thursday to discuss the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. Several of Sheriff Kent Harris’ budgetary requests, in addition to the department’s regular operating budget, also were addressed.
Harris told commissioners Thursday that his two biggest concerns were pay raises for UCSD employees and funding to purchase vehicles.
Harris also went through the UCSD’s operating budget, minus his additional requests, line-by-line with commissioners. While UCSD Chief Deputy Ronnie Adkins said the budget complies with the commission’s previous request not to include raises and money for new equipment and vehicles, he said the commission’s request to trim the budget by 2 percent over the previous year could not be done.
Adkins said the budget now includes costs associated with the recently opened jail workhouse and many of the department’s expenditures, such as fuel and medicine, are vendor-driven. He said the proposed 2011-12 budget is about 5 percent, or around $107,000, higher than that of the 2010-11 fiscal year.
The committee voted 8-1 to table approval of the budget until it gets a better idea of the UCSD’s revenues and looks into possible cuts. Commissioner Gene Wilson was the lone dissenting vote. All budgets must be approved by the full commission before being made official.
John Day, a Unicoi County resident and spokesman for the Unicoi County Citizens for Good Governance, was given an opportunity to speak by commissioners. The small group Day represents has voiced concerns with some of Harris’ additional funding requests and have questioned the justification for them.
Day opened by comparing Unicoi County to nearby Johnson County. He said the lowest-paid officer with the UCSD makes around $1,600 more than the lowest-paid deputy with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. He also said the highest-paid deputy with the UCSD makes around $2,200 more than the highest-paid JCSO deputy. He said the JCSO serves more citizens than the UCSD, but Day said that according to information his group has found, the UCSD employs more officers than the JCSO.
As Day began to address a Project America study previously cited by Harris that states a department should employee 2.3 officers per 1,000 in population, the sheriff interrupted.
“We gotta listen to all this, Bill?” Harris asked Finance Committee Chairman Bill Hensley. “We’ve got (County Technical Assistance Service) coming to do a study. Why do we have to listen to him?”
As Day began to discuss the matter of state jail inmates, Harris again interjected.
“Why don’t you get your facts straight instead of coming in here reading a bunch of crap? It’s a shame the way you’re acting, a disgrace,” Harris said to Day.
Day continued and said his group would like to see the county hire an independent consulting company to do a complete operational study of the UCSD. As Day made his closing statement, Harris interjected.
“There’s nothing here that’s not transparent,” Harris said.
Unicoi County resident Rossanna Aldrich called hiring an independent auditor “ludicrous.”
According to accounts from several in attendance, a man present at Thursday’s meeting made a derogatory comment directed toward Harris during the course of the meeting. After adjournment, another person in attendance, who apparently heard this comment, invited the man to “step outside.”
A scuffle involving the two, Harris, and several others in attendance then broke out outside of the courtroom where the meeting was held. The man who allegedly directed the comment toward Harris was followed out of the courthouse by officers and was escorted to his vehicle.
Harris did not comment on the incident afterward, but said he thought the meeting went well overall.
Following the meeting, Day said his group represents everybody in the county and wants efficient and affordable government. He said the group also favors thorough analysis before decisions are made.
“It’s unfortunate, in my mind, that it wasn’t accepted that way because that’s the way we’ve been trying to portray ourselves, as supportive and we still are,” Day said.
“Our goal is to make this county a better place to live for everybody, and also to make sure our law enforcement, our government employees, are compensated adequately, but there are limits to what we can do.”