By Kendal Groner
A second budget workshop was held on July 3 by the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee to discuss funding for the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, whose requests total approximately $500,000 more than last year, for a total budget that is approximately $2 million. In addition to approving a new nurse for the two jails, the board moved several items over to become capital projects and made around $100,000 worth of cuts. In the first budget workshop held with Sheriff Mike Hensley last month, the committee agreed to fund a total of four deputies, three criminal investigators and a full-time secretarial position.
The first item discussed by the committee last week was overtime pay, which was originally requested at $40,000, a $30,000 increase from last year’s budget.
“I’ve only got a certain few jailers that can handle these transports,” said Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley. “The comp time was getting right at the max … I’ve tried to cut down on the comp time, but they’re the only ones that can do what needs to be done.”
Hensley said because of the courts there are numerous transports they are having to make to other counties to bring inmates back to Unicoi County. Jailers have to take 40-hour in-service training, and unlike deputies, who receive a supplement check from the state, the correctional officers do not.
“So it falls on me to pay them,” Hensley said.
Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman and Budget and Finance Committee member Marie Rice asked how many hours of overtime Hensley estimated they needed. He replied that because of the line of work, it was difficult to estimate.
It was suggested by Unicoi County Commissioner and Budget and Finance Committee member Todd Wilcox to cut the overtime pay and give Hensley the opportunity to approach the board if he needed more funding down the road. A general consensus was made to cut the overtime pay line item from $40,000 to $20,000.
Although the committee had approved a full-time secretarial position, with a cost of $35,000, for the sheriff’s department last month, Hensley said he currently has a more immediate need for an additional nurse at the jails.
“There’s no question I need another secretary, but this is more pressing than a new secretary,” Hensley said. “I need another full-time nurse if I am going to cover two jails.”
With 38 women and 62 males currently housed at the jails, Hensley said the nurse had informed him she was overwhelmed with the workload due to the jails being at maximum capacity.
“Some of them aren’t even sentenced … that’s part of the problem,” he said. “Once they’re sentenced they become state prisoners.”
Although the $35,000 cost to hire an LPN at the jails had not been factored into the budget, Hensley suggested moving the $35,000 line item that had been reserved for a new secretary. The committee also saw a need for an additional nurse and supported the addition of the new position by exchanging it for the secretary position.
Before discussing the need for a maintenance and repair position, Unicoi County Commissioner and Budget and Finance Committee member Gene Wilson inquired what amount was contributed by the Town of Unicoi to the department.
“Not one dime,” Hensley responded.
Wilson asked how much was contributed by the county to the Town of Unicoi to the Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department and Unicoi County Commissioner and Budget and Finance Committee member Loren Thomas said he believed it was $15,000 or $30,000.
“Well, we outta take 30 or 15 away from them (fire department) … you know if Unicoi is going to do that,” Wilson said. “The county already funds those non-profits. The Town of Unicoi wants to be a city and get all this money, but they don’t want to pay for nothing.”
“That’s between you all,” Hensley replied to Wilson.
The committee moved on to discuss the maintenance and repair position, which Hensley estimated would cost $35,000. He cited vehicle repairs and updates, along with maintenance work to the two jails such as the installation of allied piping, as reasons a full-time position was needed to cover those maintenance duties.
“I’m having to rely on Family Auto Care out here to do the oil changes and the brakes and everything and it’s very expensive,” said Hensley. “I promise you it will save the county money by doing this.”
Wilson suggested a part-time mechanic he knew in the area, but it was mentioned by Unicoi County Commissioner and Budget and Finance Committee member Glenn White that unless the mechanic is ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified it could open the county up to lawsuits.
Wilson said the individual he had in mind may be certified and also stated that he didn’t see the need to hire someone full-time.
“You’re not going to get a certified mechanic to work part-time,” said Hensley. “Another thing, I’m trying to get by with one person when I really need two.”
The committee asked Hensley to add the maintenance and repair position into the budget for future consideration.
Hensley had requested $12,000 for vehicle tubes and tires, a $6,000 increase from last year.
“You can’t just go up here and get the cheapest set of tires for a police car … and if you run over a nail, you can’t just put a plug in it,” Hensley said.
Rice asked how much each set of tires cost and Hensley estimated $600 per pair.
Wilson said he didn’t believe 10 sets of tires could be used in a year, but Hensley said with the amount the vehicles on the roads, they wear down quickly. He said there were also trash trucks and jail vehicles to take into consideration. The committee agreed to leave the tubes and tires line item at $12,000.
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White asked what the general fund balance would be looking like for this year, which prompted Wilcox and Wilson to question whether they should be pulling from the account.
“So you’re going to break the general fund?” Wilson asked.
White said he would like to take about $300,000 from it to fuel some of the unfunded requests for the sheriff’s department.
“We still need more numbers to come in, but I’m hoping it will be pretty good,” said Phyllis Bennett, Unicoi County finance director and bookkeeper, about the fund balance.
With the discussion of the fund balance on the table came a heated argument between White and Wilson.
“Don’t start with your insults,” White said to Wilson.
“The only thing you want is more government …” Wilson said.
“I’m not starting no insults,” Wilson said.
“I don’t want to listen to what you think,” said White.
White told Wilson he “didn’t know what he was talking about” before Wilson said White was “on the fence” with everything.
“You think I’m going to listen to your crap,” White replied.
A series of personal insults were then hurled by both White and Wilson before Wilson exited the meeting. On Monday, July 9, White sent a letter to the editor issuing an apology for his remarks towards Wilson.
“I am not concerned on what opinions were directed towards me, my response was just wrong; and I want to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Gene,” White’s letter reads on page 4-A.
While discussing the general fund, Bennett had also cautioned the committee on the dangers of letting the balance drop too low.
“If any of you were around here four or five years ago when we had a $30,000 fund balance, you could not come back … that’s why it’s dangerous to take $500,000 out of it,” she said. “We’ve got to keep our fund balance up there.”
Following Wilson’s departure from the meeting, White said there was no way getting around the fact that the sheriff’s department was going to have significant increases for this year.
“I don’t know how much it’s going to be, but going and cutting five here or 10 there, I mean I just don’t see it,” White said.
For new police cars, Hensley had $77,200 budgeted. He said last week that he recently bought one new vehicle out of military surplus funds and two used vehicles for investigators out of the government surplus. However, with new deputies and a new investigator, he said there was still a need for at least three to four more vehicles.
“I’ve got a total of eight crown vics and every one is worn out …,” Hensley added. “I have one investigator car and it’s completely gone and needs to be replaced … plus I have a new investigator now that needs a car.”
Last year, two vehicles were purchased from the general fund balance and Rice asked if Hensley could purchase an additional vehicle from the government surplus. Hensley said it wasn’t just the money that was the issue, but also the time. He said it could take at least six to eight weeks to get a vehicle on the lot and then after that he has to get it equipped.
“I want to be conservative and I want to save as much as I can, but when the rubber meets the road … I’ve got to have vehicles to answer calls,” Hensley said.
Rice said the county has received a $25,000 grant that can be used to supplement the purchase of one vehicle. The committee agreed that the purchase of the vehicles should be considered a capital expense and dropped the $77,200 Hensley had budgeted for vehicles down to zero.
Another pressing issue Hensley brought to the committee’s attention was the need for improvements to radio communications, which he had budgeted at $30,000. According to Hensley, there have been serious radio communications issues. In order to fix them, the antennae on Buffalo Mountain needs to be raised 20 foot in addition to installing another receiver at Martin’s Creek.
“We only have one repeater and if that repeater tower goes down, we are out of communications and I was unaware of that until about two months ago,” Hensley said.
Whether it was his responsibility or the responsibility of the Unicoi County 911 Board to address the issue, is something Hensley said he was still unclear on. Either way, he maintained it was imperative it be fixed.
“If not, we’re going to find ourselves without communication,” Hensley said.
The committee agreed to fund the $30,000 to raise the tower and install the new repeater as a capital expense and cut the amount Hensley had budgeted down to $5,000.
Hensley had $70,000 budgeted for maintenance and repair to the workhouse jail, which included a $48,000 project for fencing of the impound lot. After meeting with the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS), Hensley said the county will be facing issues if they do not fence in the lot.
“It’s a liability on the county,” Hensley said.
He said he believed it would cost more than $40,000 once the electric wiring was factored in to operate the gate. He also stated that the Unicoi County 911 Board had agreed to provide $12,000 towards the project.
Rice said the County Commission had previously approved $15,000 on the fence and Hensley believed the issue had come back before the Commission. However, Bennett said the one bid received was too high and was turned down during a meeting, but new bids never came back before them.
“We need quotes on it and we need more information because we can’t budget for something we don’t have a cost on,” Rice said. “We’ve already approved $15,000 and they’ve approved $12,000, so you’re more than two-thirds of the way there.”
The committee cut the maintenance line item down to $10,000 with the understanding that the fencing would also be bundled as a capital expense project.
The last item discussed by the committee was the need for two camera systems at the jail due to compatibility issues between the two current systems.
“The existing cameras aren’t working,” Hensley said.
Hensley estimated it would be a total cost of approximately $24,000 to replace the camera systems. Although the cost was not included in the budget, the committee also decided that it should be included as a capital expense.
The Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee will continue their budget workshops on Wednesday, July 11, at 6 p.m. in the Unicoi County Courthouse conference room where they will be discussing the Unicoi County 911 Board’s budget.