Sheriff's department, school budgets picked to the bone

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Monday night's meeting of the Carter County Budget-Finance Committee was kind of like a family cook-out. There was a lot of grilling going on and two main entrees to choose from: Carter County Sheriff's Department and Carter County School System.
   Like attacking a rack of barbecued "pork" ribs, committee members chewed through the fat and licked the bones clean.
   Chief Deputy James Parrish of Carter County Sheriff's Department termed the 2-1/2 hour meeting "democracy in action." Being held accountable for every dollar showed the committee was doing its job, he said: Safeguarding county taxpayers' money.
   Last year's General Fund, which provides money for the majority of county offices, totaled $7,644,742. The proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2002-2003 remains unchanged, leaving the Budget-Finance committee with an additional $259,478 in requests to reconcile.
   Committee member Jeff Treadway, who had the biggest pile of bones at the end of Monday night's "cook-out," asked nearly every department head seeking a budget increase: "What if we come back and say we can't do that? What will it do to your office?"
   The consensus opinion: A cutback in services.
   A $94,000 increase for the sheriff's department might seem a bit steep at first, but in actuality, according to Chief Deputy Parrish, the department is only seeking a return of money it generated last year by housing state prisoners.
   "We renegotiated last year to get an increase in the board bill to make sure the state was paying us the actual cost on the inmates," Parrish said. "The costs are going up on us and, in turn, we pass that on to the state. So when that money starts coming back in, we'd like to take that money that it's actually costing us, the extra money for the inmates, and put it back in on the expenditure side."
   Parrish said the sheriff's department brought in an extra $90,000 in Fiscal Year 2001/2002, which was applied to the General Fund. "So, we're not asking for any additional revenues from the county. We're just asking for that extra money that was not earmarked and put it back where it belongs."
   The jail has been averaging around 160 to 180 inmates, according to Parrish. The price of food "is going out the roof," he said. "Medical is the same way."
   Parrish said the $94,000 figure includes roughly $44,000 for step increases in salaries and $50,000 for food, medical and fuel costs. Treadway asked for an accounting of the number and rank of officers, as well as pay schedules for officers and support staff, including secretarial.
   County Executive Truman Clark questioned why the county was still being asked to fund step raises for the department. "The step-raises were supposed to have been funded over several years ago. Somewhere there it should be self-funding. That money should be set aside over there and never be increased except for cost of living. We've never reached that point and I just wonder why that is."
   Parrish told him, "You won't reach that point until we have a department full of 12-year employees." With beginning pay for jailers and some officers ranging between $17,000-$18,000, the sheriff's department previously was used as a "training ground," with officers often leaving for higher-paying jobs once they attended the police academy.
   Clark said the step-raise plan was passed when Sheriff Bill Crumley was in office. "That was supposed to have been funded fully in 10 years. Here it is 14 to 16 years later and we're still funding it, and we've funded it every year, sometimes as high as $40,000. I never have understood and never had anybody explain to me -- maybe before I leave here, I'd like to see it -- why that is not funded."
   Deputy Jim Pemberton, standing and speaking from the audience, said, "Mr. Clark, maybe I can help you understand. ... You've got a turnover in the officers in this county because of the low pay; that's why your step raises are still there. ... You're not going to get enough officers in there when those step raises go away, until you start to pay where they'll stay."
   Clark replied: "I'm here to talk to the commission and the committee."
   Parrish told the committee, "We'll live on whatever you give us. But we're not asking for any more money than we generate."
   County School Superintendent Dallas Williams told the committee the school department received no additional revenue last year, and the budget it submitted had to be cut after the state reduced its contribution.
   Insurance costs rose 25 percent, according to Williams, and the administration has been told to expect another increase this year along the same line. Williams also asked for additional funding for administration fees, public awareness and school programs.
   The county has 6,031 students at 16 schools; 27 principals and assistant principals; 311 elementary teachers; 128 secondary teachers; five other classroom teachers; 12 guidance personnel; 13 librarians; 114 teacher aides; 37 clerical/secretarial staff; 162 service workers; 20 skilled craft workers and six technicians.
   "Regardless of what the state does, we're going to face $677,000 we're going to have to fund," Williams said. "We'd appreciate anything you can do."
   Cuts in state funding could result in the loss of 90 positions, Williams said, "and we couldn't operate with 90 less teachers."
   The benefits package is a major drawing card for paraprofessionals, according to Williams. "Some work primarily for the insurance, just to be quite honest."