By Brad Hicks
It could be weeks or even months before the Unicoi County Commission begins discussions concerning the county’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, but Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said an issue his department is currently facing cannot wait.
Hensley spoke to the County Commission during the panel’s Monday meeting, imploring commissioners to consider extending funding in the middle of the current fiscal year for additional officers.
The sheriff said the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department continues to lose officers due to high insurance costs and lower wages than pay offered by other law enforcement agencies and other professions. This personnel loss, Hensley said, has coincided with an increase in the department’s call volume.
“We are dedicated to the county, but we can only do so much with what we’ve got to do with,” Hensley said.
The UCSD currently staffs three officers per shift, but Hensley said at least three more officers are needed to provide adequate coverage. This would allow the department to scheduled four officers per shift.
The cost of each new deputy would be around $40,000, Hensley said. He said he has already spoken with previously-certified officers who may be interested in coming to work for the department, adding their previous certification would eliminate training expenses.
“Do I know what the answer is? Yes. I need three more deputies,” Hensley said. “Do you have the money to give me in the middle of the budget year? I don’t know.”
Unicoi County is nearly seven months into the 2016-17 fiscal year. The Unicoi County Commission approved the county’s overall budget back in August, and expenses related to the sheriff’s department, including operation of the county’s two jail facilities, represents around $3 million of the county’s approximately $7 million budget.
Hensley’s request for the County Commission to consider providing more than $100,000 during the midst of the 2016-17 fiscal year prompted questions from several commissioners. Commissioner Kenneth Garland asked why Hensley previously trimmed two positions from his department and to explain how the approximately $100,000 used to fund these positions was utilized.
Hensley said he abandoned the two positions to prevent a countywide property tax increase. He said the money that funded these positions last year was used in the 2016-17 fiscal year to boost the pay of UCSD employees in an effort to keep them from leaving the department for better wages.
Commissioner Todd Wilcox said he understands the UCSD’s budget has increased approximately $750,000 over the four years since Hensley has been the county’s sheriff and asked Hensley if that is the case. Hensley responded he would have to look at the numbers.
“I have tried my very best to keep a conservative budget for the County Commission,” Hensley said. “There are things beyond my control but I have to do them.”
Commissioner Glenn White said the “first order” of a government is to provide for the protection of its citizenry.
“So we’re going to have to do something,” White said.
The sheriff said he has already approached officials with Unicoi County Schools to inquire if the schools system could offer financial assistance with the school resource officers the UCSD staffs. Hensley said he has also spoken with the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen to see if the town could help. Hensley said he expects to hear back from these entities soon.
In response to a question from White, who asked the sheriff what it would mean for the county if the UCSD’s current staff size was unchanged, Hensley said failing to acquire the additional officers would compromise the safety of Unicoi County.
“You’re putting lives in danger,” Hensley said. “You’re putting the county in danger. You’re putting my deputies in danger.”
No action was taken Monday. Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said the commission can discuss the matter further in the future.
“We can look at this at another time and discuss it more,” Rice said.
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Garland, who chairs the County Commission’s Solid Waste Committee, also broached what he called the “pitiful” conditions at the county’s waste convenience center located on Industrial Drive. The commissioner said the center is “messy” even by a dumpsite’s standards, with refuse scattered about the property.
“If we don’t do something about it by next month, I’m going to call the state and see what they can do about it,” Garland said.
After some discussion, the commission opted to draft a letter to the center’s operator, giving him 30 days to clean up the site.