By Brad Hicks
Funding for cars, radios and a teacher made up much of the discussion during the July 20 meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee.
Cuts previously proposed to the budgets overseen by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department were the focus of the meeting, and while Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley was willing to make concessions in some areas, other previously-cut funding, deemed necessary by the sheriff, was restored.
Hensley is responsible for not only the sheriff’s department’s general budget, but also the budgets of the Unicoi County Jail and the Jail Annex. In prior meetings, the Budget and Finance Committee has discussed possible cuts to the 2016-17 budgets for each of the three areas. At its July 5 meeting, the panel proposed cuts to reduce the bottom line of the sheriff’s department’s general budget by $139,500, bringing that total budget to a little less than $1.8 million. On July 12, the committee proposed cutting the 2016-17 jail budget’s bottom line by nearly $43,500 and trimming proposed expenditures for the Jail Annex by around $14,000.
While reducing the bottom line of presented 2016-17 departmental budgets has been the committee’s end game, it has used proposed cuts to specific line items contained within these budgets to guide the process.
Hensley, who was not present at the committee’s prior meetings but was in attendance on July 20, told the Unicoi County Commissioners making up the committee he had met with Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice prior to the meeting to discuss the committee’s proposed cuts and his department’s needs.
The first topic broached by Hensley was proposed cuts to overtime funding for his department’s general operating budget. The committee on July 5 proposed reducing the $20,000 sought for overtime to $5,000. As Rice explained during that meeting, the county was reimbursed more than $17,000 in law enforcement overtime this past year through grants and funding from other agencies.
But, as Hensley explained on July 20, the overtime reimbursement the county receives can only be used for certain duties, such as the department’s work with the U.S. Forest Service, and that more than $5,000 would be needed for the expense.
“There’s no way I could do that,” Hensley said of the proposed overtime amount.
This, the sheriff said, is in part due to the requirement that a fully-trained officer remain with recent law enforcement academy graduates on the staff until these new officers are ready to work alone. Hensley said his department is short-staffed as it is, and that the department has continued to lose veteran officers to the departments due to more attractive benefit packages and step raise systems that can be found elsewhere.
“I’ve kept it as bare minimum as I can,” Hensley said of his proposed budget. “But you have to understand the liability my people are under and I’m under as sheriff.”
After some discussion, the committee agreed to restore $5,000 to the overtime line item to provide the sheriff’s department $10,000 in 2016-17.
Funding was also restored to the line item for “Other Salaries and Wages,” which is used for part-time personnel and officers stationed in the courts. The sheriff’s department was seeking $67,695 for this in the new fiscal year, but the committee at its July 5 meeting proposed cutting this line item by $14,000 to provide $53,695.
Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Administrative Assistant Joy Grindstaff told the committee last Wednesday that, if the employees paid through this line item worked only the minimum number of hours, $55,766 in funding would be needed. Hensley added that with court sessions going longer and the need to keep the building secure, keeping these employees at the minimum number of hours would be very unlikely.
The committee agreed to set this line item at $58,000, restoring approximately $4,300 in previously-cut funding.
But the committee held off on proposing further cuts or restorations to several items, one of which was vehicle repair and maintenance. The panel previously proposed reducing $50,000 the sheriff’s department was seeking by $16,000. The discussion of this cut led to a discussion of the department’s request for vehicles in 2016-17.
The sheriff’s department had presented a 2016-17 budget that included $70,000 for the purchase of two vehicles. On July 5, the committee proposed cutting this amount in half to have the county purchase one vehicle and having the sheriff’s department cover any additional vehicle purchases from its drug fund and surplus equipment sales revenues.
The sheriff’s department received more than $127,000 for vehicles in 2015-16 which allowed the department to replace four vehicles. Rice said from 2011 to 2016, the county has provided the sheriff’s department with $514,000 for vehicles, and from 2013 to 2016 has purchased 12 vehicles for the department.
Hensley countered with a proposal of his own during the July 20 meeting. The sheriff said if the county would restore in the 2016-17 budget the funding for the second vehicle, he could “do away” with his department’s maintenance garage located next to the jail and would not need to staff a certified mechanic for departmental vehicle maintenance.
The garage, Hensley said, would require roof work that could cost in the neighborhood of $30,000. He added a certified mechanic could cost more. Hensley said if the county would restore the $35,000 for the second vehicle sought, he could reduce some of the requested maintenance funding to put toward the vehicle and there would be no need to repair the roof or hire the mechanic, as he could utilize local businesses for vehicle upkeep and repairs.
The committee opted to hold off on any recommendations until more specific cost information is obtained.
Another item the committee wished to review was Hensley’s request to restore funding for communications equipment. The sheriff originally sought $12,000 for this in 2016-17, but the committee at its July 5 meeting proposed reducing this amount to $8,000.
Hensley said $12,000 was initially requested to purchase communications equipment for the two vehicles he was requesting in the budget. The cost of outfitting each would be around $4,000. He also said this line item pays for repairs to and battery replacements for the hand radios used by officers.
The sheriff asked if $10,000 could be restored to the line item, but the committee opted to revisit this request once it determines the amount of funding the county will provide the sheriff’s department for vehicles in the new fiscal year.
Perhaps the most significant cut the committee proposed to the jail’s budget was the total elimination of $25,000 designated for the teacher over the inmate education program, a position that Hensley said he “can’t eliminate,” as this person not only assists with probation requirements, but teaches GED courses and oversees drug rehabilitation programs.
“This right here is something I will not do without,” Hensley said.
Both Rice and Commissioner Kenneth Garland said they were advised by Tennessee Corrections Institute that the teacher position at the jail is not TCI mandated. At the end of the meeting, UCSD Chief Deputy Frank Rogers, after checking with the TCI, presented documentation to confirm the position is not required.
Rice suggested having a volunteer or officials with the Unicoi County School system assist with these duties.
Hensley said having the teacher at the jail has proven to be cost-effective, as it has kept some from returning to jail.
“You’ve got a good heart, and I understand where you’re coming from,” Commissioner Glenn White said to Hensley, “but we’re trying to balance a budget. It’s not a rehabilitation center there. I wish we could do it all. I understand where you’re coming from, but we’re not going to be able to balance the budget if we don’t do what we’re doing. It’s just that simple.”
“As far as I’m concerned he’s out,” Garland said of the teacher.
The cut was left in place, but Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch asked that County Commissioners meet with the jail teacher before a final decision is made. Hensley also urged the panel to keep an “open mind” with regards to the position.
The committee also agreed to restore $1,000 for jail travel to provide $3,500 and restore $1,500 for food supplies at the Jail Annex to provide $43,500. The panel also restored $200 for prisoner clothing.
Hensley also agreed to work with the parameters previously set by the committee on several line items, but he said he would return to the County Commission if additional funding was needed for the items during the 2016-17 fiscal year. These included the committee’s recommendation to provide $95,000 for gasoline, a $30,000 cut from what was originally sought; a $1,000 cut to Jail Annex law enforcement equipment to provide $2,500; and a $500 cut to travel to provide $4,500 in funding.
Coming into the July 20 meeting, the county had a surplus with projected revenues exceeding total anticipated expenditures by around $20,000. However, this amount was reduced during the meeting, as more than $14,000 in funding was restored to the budgets overseen by the sheriff’s department.
The committee also reviewed, but proposed no changes, to the 2016-17 budget of the Unicoi County Highway Department. This proposed budget reflects $3,031,806 in total expenditures and an departmental fund balance of $1,249,675 to end the fiscal year.
The Budget and Finance Committee was also scheduled to meet on July 26 and July 27 to continue preparation of the county’s budget for the new fiscal year.
Lynch previously said the full Unicoi County Commission will likely meet in a special-called session on Aug. 8 to consider the first reading of the county’s 2016-17 budget. The second and final reading of the budget could be considered by the County Commission at its regular Aug. 22 meeting, Lynch said.