Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

County budget saga continues

The saga of the 2014-2015 Unicoi County fiscal year budget continued last week as office holders again appeared before the Unicoi County Budget Committee. Last week’s meetings, which were held on Tuesday, Aug. 19, and Thursday, Aug. 21, led one office holder to make numerous cuts to his department’s budget.
During a press conference on Friday, Aug. 22, Sheriff Mike Hensley detailed what he described as “unheard of” cuts to the three budgets – sheriff’s department, jail and jail annex – for which he is responsible.
The county, including the sheriff’s department, has been operating on a continuing budget resolution since the 2014-2015 fiscal year began on July 1. Hensley said on Friday he is currently operating on one-twelfth of his proposed budget. However, if his budget is cut by the hundreds of thousands of dollars proposed by some members of the Budget Committee last week, spending money now at the proposed budget levels would cause him to run out of money before the end of this fiscal year.
“I have laid out the pros and cons and consequences and the reasoning behind my budget to the Budget Committee. I will agree that the taxpayers of this county cannot afford anymore taxes. I stand on that very firmly,” Hensley said. “But, there has been a shortfall in revenue to this county. Therefore, (the Budget Committee) is asking for severe cuts to be made in all the officials’ offices. I have talked to them about the revenue that my department brings in on state prisoners and I can’t seem to get that message across to them. …
“I have told them that we bring in $700,000 in revenue by housing state inmates, but they insist that it is costing the county too much to keep them,” he continued. “So, as of today I have ordered that all state inmates be removed from Unicoi County. Over the next couple of weeks the only inmates I will be housing will be county inmates.”
As of Friday, 59 state inmates were being held in county jail facilities. Ten male inmates were moved later that day and female inmates were scheduled to be moved this week.
Hensley said staffing at both the jail and jail annex will not change because the number of employees working at the facilities is based on the facilities themselves, not on the number of inmates housed there, which is mandated by the state. He also said other fixed costs, such as utilities, will not decrease by removing the inmates. Food costs, however, will decrease he said.
During the Aug. 19 meeting of the Budget Committee, Hensley said by housing state inmates to bring in the approximate $700,000 in revenue allows his department to offset the fixed costs of operating the jail and jail annex.
“Am I making money? No,” he said. “But I am offsetting the costs.”
County Bookkeeper Phyllis Bennett said the county received $694,009 in revenue during the 2013-2014 fiscal year. She also said $750,000 in revenue was budgeted for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
“I have also informed them on several occasions that the revenue we bring in offsets the costs to the taxpayer. These costs that I have offset from the revenue we bring in on state inmates is going to trickle right down to the taxpayer,” Hensley said. “I have told them that it does not make a difference if I have five inmates in this jail or if I’ve got 25, I still have to maintain this jail, provide utilities and have the same amount of jailers. I can’t get it across to them that it is going to cause the revenue to decrease.”
In addition to removing state inmates for county facilities, Hensley said Friday that the cuts have also forced him to eliminate jobs. Four deputy positions have been eliminated, as have one part-time and one full-time maintenance positions, one part-time inmate mowing supervisor and the full-time nurse for the jail.
“I have also laid off personnel. I have laid off maintenance people, the people that work on several projects on county buildings at no cost using inmate labor. Mowing services that we provide throughout the county I have had to lay off that supervisor who takes those inmates out,” Hensley said. “Last year we had to prorate some deputies and jailers that I needed. This year they would have had to be funded for the entire year. They want me to cut the funds which will cause me to lose those folks.
“I’m losing some deputies to other agencies for better paying jobs. …” he continued. “I’m not going to be able to hire people to fill those positions.”
Because of the loss of the four deputy positions Hensley said response times to 911 calls will increase, which he said is a safety concern.
“Responding will be based on how serious it is and which one needs to be answered first. I apologize to the people of this county. I’m sorry,” he added. “But I can only do with what I have to do with. I have pled my case several, several times with this County Commission and I want to make it clear that some of these County Commissioners understand where I stand and some of them don’t. I want the best for this county and I believe that they do too. …
Hensley also said the three School Resource Officers funded by the UCSD could be pulled out of the schools in order to work patrols. Currently, UCSD officers are in place at Temple Hill Elementary, Unicoi Elementary and Unicoi County High School. Hensley said the cost of the three SROs is over $100,000 each year.
“I am required by law to answer all the calls that come in on 911. Last year I did a survey and 911 calls alone to the sheriff’s department were over 14,000. That’s just calls to the sheriff’s department. It does not include calls that came in on the non-emergency line, or calls that came in from other agencies or my deputies coming into contact with the general public needing assistance,” Hensley said.
“I am obligated … I have to have personnel to answer these calls. Some of the County Commission has forced me to put the SRO program – the officers in our schools – in jeopardy. I may have to pull those officers out. My way of thinking, the most important thing to this county is the future of our county which is our youth and our educators. I stand firmly on that. I am forced to make these cuts by the County Commission.”
Director of Schools Denise Brown said Monday that Hensley has agreed to keep the SROs at Temple Hill and Unicoi elementary schools through the end of this week. These officers could be pulled to work patrol shifts.
The Erwin Police Department is currently providing an SRO at the high school, Brown said.
Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson said he is using officers from other department operations to cover the SRO position at the high school.
“I found out Friday from Denise that there would not be one there Monday. I agreed to send one there,” he also said. “We are doing that for at least two weeks. Until we can sort through with Denise and Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley and see if in fact the county is going to change anything.”
Hensley said that as of Friday deputies are no longer allowed to take their patrol cars home.
“As of today, I have ordered all of my patrol cars to be parked. Each deputy will drive his own vehicle to work and pick up a patrol car when they come to work,” he added.
Also regarding vehicles, Hensley said 13 of his department’s vehicles have more than 150,000 miles and four have more than 200,000 miles. Hensley said $70,000 had been included in his original budget to purchase new vehicles. Those funds have since been cut.
Hensley has also put his deputies on a 28 day work cycle. Hensley said this will eliminate overtime, but will increase comp time.
“I am for the taxpayers of this county and I’ve tried to explain my reasoning for all these decisions. They insist I cut my budget,” Hensley also said on Friday. “Some have wanted me to sue the county – sue the taxpayers – I don’t feel comfortable with suing the taxpayers of this county. I am a resident of this county. …
“I know there are people struggling to make ends meet. I have tried my best to insure the safety of every citizen in this county to the best of my ability. In order to do my job I have to have tools to do my job with, but I am being restricted.”
Hensley said it is possible these cuts could be reversed; however, he said, that is up to the Budget Committee.
“It all lays in their hands,” he added. “They are the ones that control my money. I can only do with what they give me to do with. … This is going to affect the entire county and the tax base.”
• • •
The sheriff’s department budget, jail budget and jail annex budget dominated much of the discussion between Budget Committee members during last week’s meetings. During the Aug. 19 meeting, Hensley debated the state inmate issue with the Budget Committee.
“We were supposed to get $750,000 on state prisoners,” Commissioner Kenneth Garland said to Hensley regarding that revenue budgeted for 2013-2014 fiscal year. As stated above, the county received $694,009 in revenue from state inmates during the last fiscal year. “That’s $50,000 we don’t get,” Garland added.
Hensley again stated that the revenue from state inmates offsets the costs of operating the jail facilities. Commissioner Mickey Hatcher said fixed costs are associated with operating the jail facilities.
“Whether you have one prisoner or 35 you’re still going to have to have those people watching over them,” Hatcher added. “You’re going to have to have electricity and maintain the facility.”
Commissioner Gene Wilson described housing state inmates as “a loser.”
“If we pass this budget, what all these office holders is wanting, we are looking at 20-25 cent property tax. Do your citizens want that?” Wilson asked. “The people can’t afford it.”
“Is the problem the budget or the income revenue,” UCSD Administrative Assistant Craig Masters asked Wilson. “Isn’t the problem with the revenue not coming in?”
Hensley asked the Budget Committee several times to go through his budgets line item by line item.
After debating the state inmate issue, the Budget Committee turned its attention to a comparison of the 2013-2014 and 2014-2014 fiscal year budgets. In the sheriff’s department budget, the actual expenditures for the 2013-2014 fiscal year was $1,990,161. The proposed expenditures for 2014-2015 is $2,180,221. During Budget Committee meetings on Aug. 12 and Aug. 14, the panel considered cutting $237,000 out of the 2014-2015 expenditures, bringing that total to $1,943,221.
In the jail budget, the 2013-2014 actual expenditures totaled $696,889. Proposed expenditures for 2014-2015 are $772,594. The panel also previously considered cutting $60,000 in expenditures, bringing the 2014-2015 proposed total to $712,594.
In the jail annex budget, the 2013-2014 actual expenditures totaled $421,317. Proposed expenditures for 2014-2015 are $466,259. Proposed cuts to this budget are $50,000, bringing the 2014-2015 proposed total to $416,259.
All three budgets for the 2013-2014 fiscal year totaled a combined $3,108,367. The 2014-2015 combined total without the cuts previously proposed is $3,419,074; with the cuts the total is $3,072,074.
Hatcher asked the panel to subtract the 2014-2015 total with the previously proposed cuts ($3,072,074) from the 2013-2014 actual total ($3,108,367).
“That is $36,563 less than last year’s budget,” Hatcher said.
He also said $60,000 in liability insurance, which in previous years had been included in a budget other than the sheriff’s department, jail and jail annex, was now included.
Adding this $60,000 to the $36,563 results in the proposed 2014-2015 total budgets coming in $96,563 less than the 2013-2014 budget expenditures.
After taking a short break, Commissioner Loren Thomas made a motion that the Budget Committee agree to fund the sheriff’s three budgets at the originally proposed total of $3,419,074. Hatcher reminded the panel that this total included $187,000 in cuts already agreed to by Hensley.
“I cut a deputy, jailer and court officer,” Hensley said.
Commissioner Dwight Bennett seconded Thomas’s motion. A roll call vote was taken on the motion. Commissioners James Howell, Garland, Sue Jean Wilson, Marie Rice and Gene Wilson voted no; Thomas, Hatcher and Bennett voted yes. Commissioner Bill Hensley was absent from the meeting.
Wilson later proposed making another $120,000 in cuts – $60,000 from the jail budget and $60,000 from the jail annex – in addition to the $347,000 in cuts already proposed, making the proposed cuts $467,000. Based on those cuts the total expenditures of all three sheriff’s budgets for 2014-2015 would be $2,952,074. Garland seconded Wilson’s motion.
“I’m telling you right now I can’t operate a sheriff’s department on what you are getting ready to give me,” Hensley said in response to those cuts. “You’re forcing me to take other action. I don’t want to, but I cannot operate on … If you crunch the numbers yourself you’ll see it don’t add up.”
Thomas described the cuts suggested by Wilson as the “craziest.”
Wilson, Rice and Garland voted in favor of the motion. Thomas, Hatcher, Bennett, Wilson and Howell voted not. After the motion failed, Wilson left the meeting.
Garland made a motion to go with the $347,000 in cuts proposed the previous week. This total budget would be $3,072,074. Rice seconded this motion.
Voting yes to this motion were Bennett, Howell, Thomas and Hatcher. Garland, Rice and Wilson voted yes.
Howell motioned for a total budget of $3,327,682, which was seconded by Bennett. Hatcher, Bennett, Wilson and Howell voted yes; Thomas and Rice voted no. Garland was out of the room during the vote. Despite having a majority, the motion failed because five yes votes are required on a financial matter, Mayor Greg Lynch told the panel.
After another motion failed, the panel abandoned discussion on the sheriff’s department and met with other office holders before adjourning.
• • •
During the Aug. 21 meeting, Bennett said he met with the sheriff to try “to get a happy medium” and proposed a total budget for the sheriff’s department budgets of $3,370,074. Thomas seconded this motion.
Only five commissioners – Bennett, Garland, Hatcher, Rice and Thomas – were in attendance at this meeting. Bennett, Hatcher and Thomas voted in favor of Bennett’s motion; Rice and Garland voted no.
Hatcher proposed a total budget of $3,327,682, but could not get a second.
Masters told the panel that a budget of $3,370,074 as suggested by Bennett is as far as the department could cut.
Later in the meeting, Hatcher again motioned for a budget of $3,327,682. Thomas seconded. On this motion Garland voted no, Bennett voted no and Rice voted no. Hatcher and Thomas voted yes.
Once again, no final decision was made on the sheriff’s budget.
“Any budget we have submitted to this Commission is null and void,” Masters said. “There will be a new budget coming in.”
• • •
The Budget Committee met again on Tuesday, Aug. 26, following The Erwin Record’s press deadline. Meetings are also scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 27, at 3 p.m. and Thursday, Aug. 28, at 5 p.m. Both meetings will be held at the Unicoi County Courthouse.
The deadline for submitting the county’s budget to the state is Sept. 24.