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County mulls need for more jail staff

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Every new hire is a half-penny added to tax rate

By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

rclawrence@bellsouth.net

The sheriff’s liaison committee got a quick lesson on property-tax math Tuesday night.

“Keep this in mind,” Roane County Executive Mike Farmer said. “Every new hire over at the jail is a half penny on the property tax rate. Get one, half a penny. Get two, full penny.”

Officials don’t appear to know yet exactly how many additional employees will be needed to run the new jail.

One thing seems certain, though. It will take more than the 20 currently on staff.

The new positions may have to be funded with a property tax increase.

“We’re all working to a certain number that will justify our officer safety and will be acceptable to the public, where we have to raise taxes to cover it,” said commissioner David Currier, chairman of the liaison committee.

After hearing last month that the sheriff’s office could need an additional 20 to 25 employees to operate the new jail, the committee scheduled a meeting with the jail builders and the County Technical Assistance Service.

The liaison committee also wanted the Tennessee Corrections Institute to be a part of the meeting, but Currier said TCI officials had another commitment.  

The county’s current facility, which is supposed to house 57 inmates, is overcrowded and under decertification status by the TCI.

The new 172-bed jail is scheduled to open sometime next year.

“As of now we’re projecting under budget,” said Cary Henson, president of Henson Construction Services.    

Given the size difference between the present jail and the new jail, some officials say they aren’t surprised about the need for additional employees.

“Nobody was silly enough to think that we could almost double the jail population and not add some staff,” Commissioner Troy Beets said. “We just didn’t know how much staff it was.”  

Jim Hart of CTAS said he did an analysis earlier this year and concluded the sheriff’s office would need an additional 23 employees to operate the new jail.

That figure was rebuked by Farmer.

“We, as a county, cannot afford that,” he said.

Chief Deputy Tim Phillips spoke about the dangers of being short staffed.

“An inmate can turn violent for no provoked reason whatsoever,” Phillips said. “If you got one person staffing a particular area, I think it’s very dangerous.”

The new jail will need at least three people on a shift: One to man a control station in the housing area, one to handle booking intake and a rover to keep an eye on the inmates.

“If you assume five people each, that’s roughly 15 people,” said Jim Langford, the jail’s architect. “That’s the baseline of managing the jail.”

There are other parts of a jail operation, such as cooking, transporting inmates, keeping the facility clean and overseeing such things as visitation, exercise time and inmates out on work crews.

“It’s going to take more than that 15, but that 15 is that base for those three staff station points,” Langford said. “There’s going to be additional staff needed on the day shifts and for other things.”

Officials appear to be in agreement that they need to cover more than the basics.

“We can’t do it with three per shift,” Farmer said.

Hart suggested adding a shift commander.

“You don’t want to have three different correction officers trying to run the ship in three different directions,” he said.

There’s also a gender issue because the facility will house men and women.

“The general rule of thumb is that women can watch men, but you’re not supposed to have men watching women,” Langford said.

Commissioner Mike Hooks said he’d like to have at least one male and one female rover on each shift to avoid potential legal problems.

“If you have one male rover and you have an incident with a female, you’ve got a male rover on the floor having to deal with that female,” Hooks said. “I think that right there will get you into some additional liabilities.”