Unicoi County Sheriff and Budget Committee making headway

Sue Guinn Legg • Jul 4, 2018 at 12:43 PM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley sat down for his second work session with the County Commission’s Budget Committee on Tuesday, returning to the table with reworked funding requests approximately $800,000 less than his original budget proposal.

With a 5 percent across the board pay raise for Sheriff’s Department employees removed from the budget and Hensley’s original request for seven new patrol vehicles pared down to four, the retooled budget sought approximately $479,500 in new funding over last year.

The unfunded expenditures compared to approximately $1.3 million in new funding requested for the department in Hensley’s original budget proposal.

The reductions were in keeping with the Budget Committee’s previous agreement to provide funds for two new deputies, one new investigator and two new patrol vehicles, with the understanding the sheriff would purchase one new patrol car with monies earned in the sale of surplus government items and also seek grant funding for a fourth vehicle.

By the end of Tuesday’s  work session, the committee had trimmed an additional $137,000 from the sheriff’s budget by transferring capital expenditures, including an estimated $40,000 needed for new fencing at the jail annex and $77,000 for updates  to the county’s communication towers to the county’s general budget.

But the gain was short lived as the committee went on to add funding for a second nurse for the county’s two jails and a certified auto mechanic for the Sheriff’s Department at an estimated cost of more than $77,000.

Smaller line items trimmed by the committee included a $20,000 cut to the sheriff’s $40,000 request for overtime pay for his patrol division that was made with the understanding Hensley will come back to the commission to request more overtime pay if needed.

As the committee was discussing another $6,000 cut to Hensley’s request for $12,000 for replacement tires for the department’s vehicles and the possibility of Hensley likewise coming back to the commission for more funding for tires as needed, tempers suddenly flared between Commissioners Glenn White and Gene Wilson.

County Finance Director Phyllis Bennett had told the committee she did not yet have an estimate of the county’s year-end fund balance, which last year came it at just over $1 million, but is hopeful it will be “pretty good.”

White had said he would like to use about $300,000 of the fund balance on sheriff’s department needs. And Wilson had responded, “You are going to break the fund balance,” when White suddenly raised his voice and hurled several heated insults at Wilson. Wilson responded with an insult for White and walked out the meeting.

Bennett later explained the need for a healthy fund balance. “For those commissioners who were not around when the fund balance got down to $30,000,” she said, “you cannot come back and ask for if it goes down to that again.”

She noted the county purchased three police cars out of the fund balance last year and previously used the fund balance to pay for repairs to the jail following a flood caused by a major wastewater pipe failure. “That’s why being healthy is so important,” she said.

Still faced with more than $400,000 in unfunded budget requests from the sheriff’s department and approximately $400,000 in additional unfunded needs in the general budget, the committee agreed to meet again next week in an evening work session that will allow more commissioners to attend.

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