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Sheriff threatens legal action over budget

Sheriff Mike Hensley, left, addresses the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee on July 20. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)
Sheriff Mike Hensley, left, addresses the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee on July 20. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Despite Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley’s insistence that the panel review several funding requests he said are needed to operate his department, the Unicoi County Commission on Monday, Aug. 8, approved the first reading of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget.

And Hensley said if his needs are not addressed between now and the Commission’s consideration of the budget’s second and final reading, he will be left with “no choice” but to let the court decide whether the county should fund the requests.

“I cannot operate on what they’ve given me to operate on,” Hensley said following Monday’s meeting.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, members of the County Commission received a letter dated Aug. 8 and signed by Hensley. In his letter, Hensley presented commissioners with two options impacting maintenance of Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department vehicles. He is also seeking the funding to bring two part-time jailers at each of the county’s jail facilities up to full-time status, the full restoration of funding for a much-discussed teaching position at the Unicoi County Jail, and funding to install fencing around the Unicoi County Jail Annex.

“If this can be accomplished I will accept this budget and the cuts that we have previously discussed, respectfully if this cannot be accomplished this will be turned over to my attorney,” the last sentence of Hensley’s letter reads.

In his letter, the sheriff gives the County Commission the option of replacing the roof of the UCSD’s vehicle maintenance garage located next to the Unicoi County Jail in downtown Erwin. During meetings of the County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee held to prepare the county’s 2016-17 budget, this repair was estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $30,000. With this, Hensley writes that the county would need to fund a certified mechanic to perform vehicle maintenance for his department. Annual mechanic salary estimates provided by Hensley in his letter ranged from around $31,000 to nearly $46,000.

Should the commission opt not to proceed with the repair of the leaky roof and the funding of a certified mechanic, Hensley is seeking $110,000 in his department’s budget for vehicle maintenance and repair. Fifty-thousand dollars was originally sought for this expenditure in the UCSD’s 2016-17 budget, but the Budget and Finance Committee previously proposed providing $36,000 for this item in the new fiscal year.

Following Monday’s meeting, Hensley said the hiring of a mechanic to perform maintenance on his department’s cruisers and other vehicles would save the county thousands of dollars. Approximately $35,000 was spent on maintenance and repair in 2015-16, but Hensley said this was the amount spent on parts and did not include labor costs due to having a mechanic onboard.

Hensley said the Commission previously agreed to begin moving a few part-time corrections officers up to full-time status each year, but he said this was not included in his proposed 2016-17 budget due to a letter he previously received from the county mayor’s office asking that positions, pay increases and capital expenses not be included in the submitted budgets, as these expenditures would be discussed by the Budget and Finance Committee.

Included in the original budget for the Unicoi County Jail, however, was $25,000 for a teacher who leads inmate GED and drug rehabilitation programs. At one point, the Budget and Finance Committee discussed completely eliminating funding for the position but eventually opted to provide $15,000 for the position by increasing projected state inmate revenues by the same amount.

Hensley in his letter called for the full $25,256 for the teacher’s salary to be restored.

“It is not required by (the Tennessee Corrections Institute) for me to do this. I’ll agree it’s not,” Hensley said of having the teacher at the jail. “But the thing of it is, what he has done has been successful for the inmates to keep them out and not return back to jail.”

Hensley said fencing is needed to secure the Unicoi County Jail Annex. The sheriff said he has obtained the razor wire needed to complete the project through the U.S. military, reducing the projected project cost from $50,000 to around $24,000.

“I fully realize that this will need to be put out to bid and I have brought this to the county commission attention for several years and nothing has been done,” Hensley wrote in reference to the fencing project.

The sheriff’s letter also outlined areas in which his department has increased revenue, including bringing in 2015-16 state inmate revenue over original projections, as well as medical, commissary and telephone revenues.

Because the UCSD has brought additional revenue to the county, Hensley said the money is there to meet the requests spelled out in his letter. However, the sheriff said the additional revenue is instead being used to build the county’s fund balance. And, while Hensley said he is not opposed the county bolstering its fund balance, he said his requests must be met.

“Those things I’ve asked for are needs, necessities,” Hensley said. “The money is there. The money is there, and they refuse to give it up.”

Monday’s meeting was a special-called session, and the only item up for the Commission’s consideration was approval of the budget on first reading. Commissioner Kenneth Garland moved that the budget be approved, with Commissioner Gene Wilson seconding.

Commissioner Loren Thomas asked fellow commissioners if they wanted to discuss Hensley’s letter.

“We’ve all read it, but we’ve met with the sheriff, Mr. Thomas,” Wilson said.

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said she did not receive Hensley’s letter until less than an hour before the start of Monday’s meeting and was unaware of the requests prior to that.

“All of these requests are over and above what had been included in the original budget from the sheriff’s department,” Rice said.

“There’s a lot of things that need to be addressed, and I would urge you to take a serious look at them,” Hensley said to the Commission.

But Rice and Wilson pointed out Hensley left the Budget and Finance Committee’s July 26 meeting  before items in his budgets could be fully discussed and did not attend the July 27 meeting to provide the committee with further information.

The first reading of the budget was approved by a 7-1 vote, with Thomas casting the dissenting vote. Commissioner John Mosley was not present for Monday’s meeting.

Hensley said Monday evening he has consulted with the County Technical Advisory Service and has been advised that doing nothing is not an option. He said if the budget is passed on second reading, he can either sign a letter of agreement stipulating that he will work within the approved budget or take legal action against the county.

“I’m standing firm on (the jail teacher). I’m standing firm on my budget. I’m standing on everything I’ve asked for is a necessity,” Hensley said. “It’s nothing extravagant. It is things that has been put off and put off and put off. It needs to be addressed.”

Hensley said the county is obligated by state law to fund his department so that it can operate efficiently. He said he will not sign the letter of agreement if his requests are not addressed prior to approval of the budget’s second reading. He said legal action against the county is not something he wishes to proceed with and described it as a “last resort.”

“There is no way I can operate my jails and my department efficiently and safely with the budget that they’re trying to give me and the cuts that they have made to me. There’s no way,” Hensley said.

• • •

As for the county’s overall 2016-17 budget, it reflects projected revenues of around $7,150,000 against approximately $7,210,000 in projected expenditures. It also does not include a property tax increase. Unicoi County’s current property tax rate is $2.6838 per $100 of property value.

Unicoi County’s projected fund balance for 2016-17 is approximately $569,000. Following Monday’s meeting, Rice said county officials must continue efforts to increase the fund balance, as the county is supposed to maintain three month’s worth of operating funds. The goal, she said, is to get the fund balance over the $1 million mark.

The County Commission is set to consider the second and final reading of the budget at its Aug. 22 meeting.