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Sheriff, budget committee spar over budget

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch, right, listens as Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley defends his budget requests to the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee during a meeting on Tuesday, June 19. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee sat down with Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley on Tuesday, June 19, to discuss funding requests from his department for the 2018-19 budget that include a total of four deputies, three criminal investigators and a full-time secretarial position.

“The bottom line is I don’t have enough people to answer the calls,” Hensley said. “I don’t have enough people to work when the deputies need time off. The compensation time is definitely not working for me because I don’t have enough people to work for those that need time off.”

With not enough deputies on staff at the moment and what Hensley said is a growing workload, he said it is imperative that he receives at least two new deputies; especially in light of new restrictions that extend the period of time it takes to train someone and increased patrol demands.

“It takes a lot of time to get a deputy trained,” he said.

At six months from the date a deputy is hired, a deputy must be put through academy training before riding with a field training officer, a time span that Hensley said stretches eight or nine months.

“I’ve put two patrol officers in the schools and I don’t think we can afford to take them out,” he said.

Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland inquired about state funding for school resource officers and Hensley said he heard word money may “be coming down the pipe,” but there have been no details as to when or how much.

“All these politicians are good for is giving you lip service,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson. “They’re not going to help this county.”

With the Town of Unicoi relying on the sheriff’s department to patrol the Town of Unicoi, Hensley said that has put additional strain on the department.

“They’re counting on me to patrol out there and I need help,” he said.

Garland asked why the Town of Unicoi needs “special treatment” and if they were providing any funding for patrol. Hensley said he sent the Town of Unicoi a letter over a month ago, yet has received no response.

“I’ve got to have four deputies, that’s the bottom line,” Hensley said.

Hensley said he had already eliminated the position of chief deputy, freeing up approximately $46,145 and leaving enough to fund one new deputy which costs around $40,000.

“We may have to start with a new budget because there’s so much in here,” Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said, “but we can agree on some things today.”

Wilson made a motion to remove the chief deputy line item and replace it with two deputies. It was seconded by Garland before it unanimously passed.

Wilson inquired as to why Hensley was requesting three investigators, as opposed to the two he currently has.

“We’re trying to get one this year and one next year because the two I have are going to retire,” Hensley explained. “I have to have someone to fill their shoes … you can’t do it overnight.”

He also said that the number of calls coming from Walmart, which he is required to respond to, is enough to take up one investigator’s time, not counting the other county crimes. The cost for one investigator with benefits totals approximately $45,080.

“Sheriff, you’ve done a good job the last four years, why do you need more now?” Garland asked.

Hensley said all of the jails in the area are at maximum capacity, many with non-sentenced prisoners and the Tri-Cities crime rate keeps increasing. 

“The simplest way to put this is I’ve got two and I’m requesting three,” Hensley said about the investigators.“I’m trying to be conservative and get by the best we can.”

The general consensus among the commissioners was to to approve the funding for the three investigators, which would provide two to cover those that are retiring and another for next year.

Also up for discussion was Hensley’s request for one full-time secretarial position. He currently has one full-time and one part-time secretarial worker, yet he says the workload is still too demanding.

“The paperwork in the jails is overwhelming,” he said. “On top of that, I am required by law to have someone not affiliated with any cases to be an evidence technician.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Jason Harris said because the commission didn’t fund a new secretarial position for the mayor, he didn’t see why they should for the sheriff’s department.

It was also pointed out by Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox that the commission hadn’t yet factored in the cost of outfitting vehicles for the new deputies and expressed that he also wasn’t in favor of funding a new secretarial position.

“I want to remind you I’m bringing in a lot of money from the state,” Hensley said.

However, he said there have been multiple occasions his department has been late getting those payments in from the state due to lack of personnel.

Hensley asked if the commission would favor him keeping his full-time secretarial position, costing $35,000 a year and doing away with the part-time position that costs $6,240 a year to instead replace it with a full-time position. Hensley also pointed out that if his secretary, Joy Grindstaff, were to retire the department would be in desperate need of more secretarial assistance.

“You better have something budgeted,” he said. “No one understands what all she does.”

The committee asked Hensley to draft a new budget reflecting the agreed upon changes.

Following their meeting on June 26 to discuss the Unicoi County School System, Agricultural Extension Office and Industrial Development Board’s budgets, the commission will sit down with the sheriff once more to continue discussion of his budget.