Unicoi sheriff’s department’s step raise plan draws fire

Brad Hicks • Jul 24, 2013 at 9:03 AM

ERWIN — For the past few weeks, the Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee has been working with county officials to nail down the county’s overall budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting of the Finance Committee, Committee Chairman and Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas said the committee has met and discussed proposed expenditures with most of the county’s officeholders, and that it is too early in the process to tell at this point what type of property tax increase residents may face in the 2013-14 fiscal year. Thomas said he hopes to be able to set the 2013-14 tax rate at the commission’s Aug. 26 meeting.

According to county bookkeeper Phyllis Bennett, the county’s 2013-14 shortfall prior to Tuesday’s meeting was around $681,000 without a fund balance for the county.

On Tuesday, the Finance Committee discussed the proposed budgets for the county mayor’s office and the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.

The county mayor’s budget was projected at $254,963 after some discussion Tuesday. The county buildings budget, which includes the Unicoi County Courthouse, was projected at around $150,000.

The sheriff’s department’s projected overall budget, which includes the budgets for the Unicoi County Jail in downtown Erwin and the Unicoi County Jail Annex, is currently around $1 million higher than the department’s 2012-13 overall budget. Although sheriff’s officials expect this increase to be offset by around $700,000 in revenues, Sheriff Mike Hensley said the need for more patrol officers and the mandated requirement to hire more jailers attributed to the projected expenditure increases.

“I want you to know that we’ve done everything that we could possibly do, cut every corner that we could cut,” Hensley said to the committee.

Hensley said a state jail inspector visited the county’s jail facilities last week and advised sheriff’s department officials that for the facilities to maintain certification, a total of six part-time jailers would need to be hired. Three of the new jailers would work at the downtown jail, and the other three would work at the Jail Annex.

The total annual cost for these jailers, who would work around 32 hours per week, would be around $99,000, Hensley said. He said half of this cost would be offset through a new contract with the phone company that allows county inmates to make phone calls.

After some discussion, the proposed budget for the Unicoi County Jail in downtown Erwin was pared down to $820,796, and the proposed budget for the Unicoi County Jail Annex was projected to be $472,573. The proposed budget for the sheriff’s department itself, which includes salaries for deputies, investigators, the sheriff and other departmental officials, as well as vehicle, maintenance and equipment expenses, was projected to be $2,323,451.

Around $93,000 of the sheriff’s department’s projected 2013-14 budget is to pay for three student resource officers. Hensley said the town of Erwin also funds one of the officers, and the Unicoi County School System funds another. Thomas said he had concerns that the town of Unicoi does not contribute funding toward the county’s SRO program, as one of the officers funded by the sheriff’s department will be placed in Unicoi Elementary School.

“I don’t agree with that just because the town of Unicoi doesn’t have to pay for their SRO,” Thomas said of the $93,000 budgeted.

Still, no changes to the proposed expenditure were made. Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Administrative Assistant Craig Masters said the department’s budget also included step raises for the department’s employees.

Through this proposed 10-year step raise system, deputies beginning their second year with the department would receive a raise of around $88 a month, or about $1,000 a year. This raise would continue until the officer or employee reaches 10 years, at which time the raises would stop, Masters said.

Higher-ranking officials within the department would receive raises of around $44 a month and would also “top out” at 10 years, Masters said. The sheriff’s department budgeted around $200,000 extra for deputy salaries in 2013-14, and no changes to this projection were made Tuesday.

Following the meeting, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he took exception to the sheriff’s department’s proposed step raise system. While Lynch said he is not opposed to a step raise system or county deputies receiving raises, he said a countywide step raise system for all offices should be implemented, not just a system exclusive to the sheriff’s department. Lynch said he was “surprised” by the proposal, adding that he feels more time is needed to look into a countywide step raise system.

“That’s not just something somebody can cook up and bring into a county commission,” Lynch said.

Lynch said employee raises have not been discussed with other county officeholders the Finance Committee has met with thus far, as officeholders were advised not to budget raises since the topic was to be discussed at a later date.

“So that basically was a slap in the face to every officeholder in the courthouse by changing the rules in the middle of the game,” Lynch said of the sheriff’s department’s proposed system. “It doesn’t matter if you put a S.T.E.P. in front of it, a raise is a raise.”

Lynch said if the county is to give its employees raises in the 2013-14 fiscal year, he would prefer these raises to be given “across the board,” in which a certain percent or monetary amount would be given to each employee. From there, he said the county could later discuss the setup and implementation of an all-inclusive step raise system. Lynch said the topic has been discussed for several years, and he believes a consultant should be brought in to provide guidance on a county system.

The Unicoi County Commission must vote to approve any budgets before they take effect. Lynch said he anticipates that commissioners will discuss the topic of the sheriff’s department’s proposed step raises before any official vote is cast.

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