Unicoi County sheriff discusses budget disagreements

Brad Hicks • Sep 10, 2013 at 5:09 PM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said he feels the county’s employees are hardworking and deserving of a raise, but he “respectfully resents” the notion that his department may be blamed for these employees not receiving a larger pay jump in the new fiscal year.

The Unicoi County Commission is set to consider the second and final reading of the county’s 2013-14 fiscal year budget this evening at 6. The budget includes one-time $500 bonuses for most county courthouse employees and a portion of the raises the sheriff’s department sought for its employees through a 10-year step raise system.

The issue of raises has been a point of contention of the Finance Committee’s budget development process, which began in early July. Several officeholders have voiced dissatisfaction that their employees will not receive raises in the new fiscal year. The commission has already approved the first reading of the county’s proposed budget, which includes bonuses for county employees and raises for sheriff’s department employees.

To address the raise issue, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch has proposed that the sheriff’s department not hire a new administrative position the department has budgeted and find another $8,000 to $10,000. Through this proposal, which Lynch said has the support of several county officeholders, the county would be able to use this funding to bring county courthouse employees up to the “parity level” salary of $28,122 and grant most a one-time $1,000 bonus in 2013-14.

However, Hensley said Monday that this position is a necessity for his department, both for the maintenance of records and paperwork and to save space. The sheriff said the person hired to fill this new administrative position will be responsible for digitally entering the “thousands” of backlogged paper book-in cards, offense reports and arrest reports that the sheriff’s department must maintain and also ensure this data is secure. Hensley said this person will also be tasked with digitally entering new information as it comes in and making sure paperwork and departmental monies are correctly filed.

“The sheriff’s department here has been behind times, just to be honest,” Hensley said. “We’re behind other departments in progress. If you go into other departments, they have their own warrant division. Everything is on computer. They can pull things up with the snap of a finger. We can’t. ... We have to go back to the old filing cabinets. We have to pull out old arrest reports. We have to search and search and search through different offense reports, arrest reports, book-in cards.”

Approximately $31,000 has been budgeted by the sheriff’s department for the salary of the new position. Hensley said the post will be an “intense” job, and that the department would not be able to find the person with the education and experience to fill it by offering “$8 an hour.”

Hensley said he has made a number of cuts to his proposed 2013-14 budget during the budgetary process and can make no more. He said the sheriff’s department is now cut to the “bare minimum,” and he is unable to make further cuts and is unwilling to bend on the new data-entry position.

“I’ve cut every time they’ve asked me to cut,” Hensley said. “I’ve been operating on a shoestring. Now I’m on a spider web.”

The sheriff’s department’s total proposed budget for 2013-14 is $2,185,876, which is around $570,000 more than than the department’s 2012-13 fiscal year budget proposal of $1,613,864. But Hensley said over the past year, the sheriff’s department has undertaken several items, including initiating the process to place student resource officers in all Unicoi County schools, hiring required jailers, the relocation of the sheriff’s department to the Unicoi County Jail Annex and providing bailiffs and security to the Unicoi County Courthouse.

He also said this year’s sheriff’s department budget is comparable to the proposed departmental budget of $2,134,592 from the 2011-12 fiscal year, the year before Hensley took office.

If the commission does not approve the final reading of the budget tonight, it could have consequences for the sheriff’s department and an impact on the county as a whole, Hensley said. After the commission approved the first reading of the budget late last month, Hensley said he hired six part-time jailers, which was previously mandated by the state jail inspector. The sheriff said the commission’s failure to pass the budget would jeopardize these positions.

Hensley also said the sheriff’s department has committed to stationing two officers in the town of Unicoi. Failure to pass the budget would hinder the sheriff’s department’s ability to meet this obligation, Hensley said. He said non-passage of the budget would delay for several months the department’s ability to send new officers to the training academy, which would result in already-trained officers working overtime, which Hensley said would be a greater cost to the county.

The sheriff also said if his department’s budget does not pass as presented, he will call upon the County Technical Advisory Service to conduct an assessment of the sheriff’s department. Hensley said the costs to bring the department up to CTAS specifications would be “astronomical.”

Hensley said the county commission has the opportunity to pass a budget that includes no property tax increase that meets the county’s needs. He said the commission must act on this.

“They’ve got the opportunity, right now, to pass this budget with no tax increase,” Hensley said. “Now, if some of these other departments want to make some cuts, that’s fine, but I’ve cut all I can cut. If anybody says that I haven’t worked with them, negotiated with them, they’re lying because I have.”

Hensley said, as he understands it, other officeholders were given the opportunity to propose step raise systems for their offices, but only his acted. To address the raise issue, Hensley said cuts could possibly by looked at for other offices, but he reiterated he could trim no more.

“I’m 100 percent behind all the other officials, and I’m 100 percent behind all the employees,” Hensley said. “In their offices, they do an extraordinary job. They deserve a raise, but I don’t like, after I know what I’ve done, for the mayor to kind of lay it in my lap and say ‘Well, if you’d make these cuts, that’ll give the others raises,’ like I’m the cause of that. It’s not true.”

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