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Officials butt heads over need for jail employees, tax increase

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

dlawrence@roanecounty.com

Officials have different opinions about the number of new employees the Roane County Sheriff’s Office needs to operate the new jail.

The views were expressed last week during a budget committee discussion about the sheriff’s proposed jail budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year.  

“I can’t tell you what the right number is,” County Executive Mike Farmer said. “I don’t believe there’s anybody out there that knows what the right number is. We all have a guess.”

Sheriff Jack Stockton has said he needs 12 additional full-time employees. Farmer recommended four.

“I’m sorry sir, but I don’t agree with you,” Commissioner Bobby Collier said. “I’m going to move that we do eight full time and four part time.”

“That’s a nickel on the tax rate,” Farmer said.   

The new jail is more than double the size of the current facility. It’s supposed to open sometime this summer.

Stockton said he currently has 22 jail employees, which he contends isn’t enough to run the new facility.

“I need 12 people,” Stockton emphasized. “That’s a minimum number that I need. It’s not a desire. It’s a need.”

“We based those on professional statistics that we’ve done with [County Technical Assistance Service] and the Tennessee Corrections Institute,” he added.

Commissioner James Harmon recommended adding four full time and four part time.

“That’s out of an abundance of caution,” Harmon said. “Then if we see that we had to increase it, we could.”

After all the discussion and debate, the budget committee did not vote on the issue. Members plan to meet at the new jail at noon Wednesday for a tour.

“What we’re going to do is take everybody over there and show them the particular places and explain some of the duties to justify the number of people that we’re asking for,” Chief Deputy Tim Phillips said.

“I want to see where these 12 people are needed,” Collier said.  

After the tour, the budget committee will meet in Farmer’s office. Both the tour and the meeting are open to the public.

Farmer has previously said that each new jail hire represents a half penny on the property tax rate, so the additional staff could require a property tax increase. The budget committee still has a lot of other county budgets to consider besides the jail. Collier said a property tax increase may not be avoidable.

“I didn’t go in with any illusions that we weren’t going to have to raise taxes,” Collier said. “I know we’re going to have to raise taxes.”

The county commission passed a 25-cent property tax increase in 2007. That was during better economic times. The country is now in a recession, and the state estimated Roane County’s unemployment rate in March at 8.4 percent. That’s the highest its been since July 1997.

“I understand your concerns about dollars and cents and the tax rate,” Stockton told committee members. “But understand our position as correctional officers and myself as an office holder and my responsibilities.”    

“I feel like that it’s necessary to have those 12 positions in order to properly conduct the official business of this office,” Stockton added.

Stockton said he’s looking to hire additional staff as soon as possible, so he can get them trained. Farmer said that would require the county to amend the sheriff’s budget for the current fiscal year, which doesn’t end until June 30.  

“If he’s wanting to get people trained today, that doesn’t have anything to do with this (proposed 2009-10) budget,” Farmer said. “What we need to do is, we would have to amend the budget that we’re operating under right now.”