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Group takes aim at sheriff’s budget

A group of around 10 concerned citizens, led by John Day, is disputing claims by Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris that his department needs nearly $1 million in additional funding in order to comply with state statutes.
Among the group’s key concerns are Harris’ requests for 10-percent pay raises for UCSD employees and his claim that deputy pay in Unicoi County is “significantly low when compared to surrounding agencies.”
Day said in an interview last week that research conducted by the group suggests nearby Johnson County has 69 fewer residents and employs only 16 deputies on its sheriff’s department, compared to the UCSD’s 23 deputies.
Day also said that the department handled nearly 250 more complaints last year than the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, according to data obtained from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Further, the group reports that the lowest- and highest-paid deputies in Unicoi County earn $1,670 and $2,250 more than the lowest- and highest-paid deputies in Johnson County, respectively.
“The Johnson County Sheriff’s Department appears to be doing more than the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department with less resources and with lower pay,” a handout provided by Day last week said.
Day said that, as a citizen, he would like to see an independent agency conduct a study of staffing at the sheriff’s department, as well as other county offices, in order to garner an unbiased opinion on what the local government needs in order to function properly.
Day said he researched a company that could do the study in Unicoi County for between $25,000 and $45,000.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch has also said he would like to have such a study done in county offices to address staffing concerns for officeholders.
In a packet received from Harris on July 15, the sheriff indicated that the County Technical Assistance Service will send Terry Hazard, a criminal justice consultant with the agency, to conduct a study regarding patrol deputies on August 16 and 17.
Hazard confirmed he will be traveling to the area to conduct a staffing analysis of the department and said CTAS will provide the service at no cost to the county.
According to documents from the sheriff, Hazard will be accompanied by a jail expert, who will tour the county’s jails in order to address and validate needs in those facilities, including Harris’ request for a full-time nurse, dietitian and cook.
In a letter to commissioners several weeks ago, Harris indicated that state standards call for these full-time positions in order to reduce liability concerns for the department, as well as the county itself.
Day and his fellow citizens, however, report that a nurse is not required to be present in jail facilities seven days a week, as Harris claimed in his letter. According to the group, no provisions in Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) or Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) code require the department to hire a full-time nurse.
“Plenty of other jurisdictions have a routine sick-call day,” Day said. “Those (agencies) also handle medical emergencies by bringing in a doctor to the jail or taking an inmate to the hospital. This is also an area that needs to be studied carefully.”
Day also claimed there is no valid statute in TCA or TCI rules requiring the department to hire a full-time dietitian.
“The TCI requires that meals should be planned by a dietitian,” Day said. “But it does not specify where you have to get that person, nor does it mandate that they are on staff.”
Harris has previously said the department used the school system’s dietitian for meal planning but wants to move away from that practice in order to minimize liability for both his department and the school system.
Day went on to say that another key concern for the citizen group involves the number of police cruisers currently in the UCSD’s fleet, as well as Harris’ request for 12 new cruisers this year, which came with an estimated price tag of about $336,000.
“Everybody’s asking already why we have a sheriff vehicle on every block,” Day said. “I’ve had commissioners quote numbers anywhere from 40 to 74 vehicles on the (department’s fleet), but yet we only have 23 deputies.”
Day said he and his group are concerned that the department allows deputies to use police cruisers as personal vehicles.
“I know of one (car) that sat in the same place throughout the months of December, January and February, and was never moved,” Day said, adding that he had photo evidence of this claim. “Can we show dispatch record where these deputies have to go out on emergency or support calls very often? Where are the cars? What are we using these things for?”
In the July 15 documents, Harris responded with documentation from the 911 dispatch office reporting that 911 took in 9,302 calls between July 6, 2010 and July 6, 2011, not counting approximately 148,000 calls in 2010 on the department’s non-emergency dispatch line.
Day said his group does not harbor any ill feelings toward the sheriff or his deputies but said the group is trying to effect change in county government that will lead to improvements in how the government is run.
“This is not an attack of any kind on the sheriff,” Day said. “I want to reiterate our position that we are very supportive of all our government agencies. We only want to see things improve and we want to do what we can to help them improve.”
Although no formal name or logo have been suggested for the group, Day said he sees “a very strong possibility” that he and the other citizens will formalize their operation.
“As a matter of fact, we talked about a name and logo. One name we thought of is very simple: Citizens for Good Governance,” Day said. “It’s not a group of people that forms one sect.”
Day concluded that he would like to see more citizens in Unicoi County take an interest in local government and support efforts to keep it running efficiently. He also holds optimism that the sheriff’s department will be responsive to the group’s concerns.
“I feel like they will speak with us,” Day said. “I think they’ll be very proactive about it, and that’s what we would like to see is some dialogue.”
Day is expected to act as the group’s spokesman in presenting their findings to the Unicoi County Commission’s finance committee on Thursday, July 21. The group invites citizens to explore its findings on a new website, at http://americas-sentinels.org/UnicoiCountyCitizensForGoodGovernment.htm
Harris and his chief deputy, Ronnie Adkins, are also expected to be at the 4:30 meeting in the conference room of the Unicoi County Courthouse in order to present the department’s budget to commissioners.