Attorney General opinion on sheriff’s SRO transfer discussed

It’s not the answers they disagree about, it’s the question.

A state attorney general opinion released on Dec. 12 said that Blount County Sheriff James Berrong should have gotten budget transfers from the county commission when he moved school resources officers from classrooms to regular patrols.

The transfers happened in the summer of 2006 to deal with manpower shortages after the new 2006-07 budget was approved. As of Monday, the sheriff’s office was short about 11 or 12 deputies in the schools, Berrong said.

When questioned about the Dec. 12 opinion that commissioner David Graham requested from the attorney general, Berrong didn’t disagree with the attorney general’s opinion. He and Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett both said they just wondered why Graham didn’t ask a different question.

Berrong said the AG’s opinion was right. “The AG was right, but the question asked had nothing to do with the issues,” he said. “I do have authority to make personnel moves as needed in the sheriff’s office.”

Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett said the opinion didn’t answer the ultimate question. “Does the sheriff have the authority to assign deputies as he sees fit, based on law enforcement needs of the county?” he said.

The requests, made by Graham in July, asked two things:

When Berrong transferred the SROs from the SRO division to other divisions should the sheriff have requested budget transfers from the Budget Committee in order for the employees’ pay to have been directed out of the school resource office cost center to the new division in which they were working?

What steps must the sheriff take to have such transfers approved under the 1957 accounting law the county switched to at the beginning of the 2007-08 fiscal year?

The state attorney general responded with the following opinion:

“Assuming the separate divisions within the sheriff’s office represent major appropriation categories, then the sheriff should have requested approval for the transfers from the budget committee for its recommendation to the county mayor or the county legislative body or both for approval. If the divisions were not major appropriation categories, the sheriff should have requested approval for the transfers from the budget committee. The budget committee could approve the transfers, or, if it failed to approve them, they could have been approved by a majority vote by the county commission.”

In his written response, Berrong took issue with the questions and said the issues about appropriations from the 2006-07 budget were now a moot point since the SRO cost centers were combined with regular deputies cost centers.

“The attorney general’s opinion is now a moot point,” said Berrong. “Beginning with the 2007/2008 budget, the Blount County Commission approved combining the cost centers at the request of Commissioner David Ballard.

“In his opinion, the attorney general responded to the facts as presented in the request from Commissioner David Graham. The Blount County Sheriff’s Office was not consulted in drafting the questions.

“The opinion states, ‘This request addresses a specific factual situation,’ and that it ‘relies on the facts as presented in this request.’ The opinion goes on to say that I transferred School Resource Officers from the school resource office division to work in other divisions of the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office does not have a ‘School Resource Office’ division. School Resource Officers are considered ‘patrolmen,’ and are paid out of the same line item as ‘patrolmen sheriff’s deputies.’

“The sheriff’s office is committed to putting a deputy sheriff in every school. However, due to increased turnover due to non-competitive pay, I had to make a very difficult decision to re-assign School Resource Officers within the patrol division to help us deal with the growing calls for service.”

Bennett said that the cost centers used in the 2006-07 budget separated SROs and regular deputies for purposes of in-house accounting but were combined when audited by the comptroller’s office.

“The true facts of the matter were never presented to the attorney general. The fact of matter is, there weren’t any major categories,” he said. “Here’s the bottom line: There were cost centers that the state comptroller allows us to use.”

Bennett said cost center 54110 is a cost center called the Sheriff Department. In the budget process, the county used cost center 54113 and 54117 for School Resource Officers. “It was in essence set up for internal accounting practices,” he said. “In an audit, it’s not shown. Everything is rolled up in 54110 at the end of the year.”

In the 2007-08 budget, Bennett said the county, at the request of a motion by Ballard, stopped using the internal cost centers that separated SROs from regular deputies. “We got rid of those completely per Ballard’s motion,” Bennett said.

Ballard said his whole point in making the motion was the sheriff had five or six cost centers with funds spread out in them and two contained SRO funds. “My request was to combine those two cost centers. They took it a step further and rolled them all into the sheriff’s office cost center. Bennett gave me the explanation that they weren’t official Tennessee state chart of accounts cost centers, that they were made up internally,” he said.

Ballard said he pointed out there was a line item for SROs and that that was where that money needed to be placed for SROs. “I was ignored, and no money was allocated to that cost center even though we were paying SROs,” he said. “That was one of my bigger points of contention in not supporting the tax increase last year.”

Bennett said the cost center issues have not been the issue. “The issue is who has authority to assign deputies, the county commission or the sheriff? I believe we’ve paid these deputies legally within the authority granted us, and, if I thought differently, I would not have paid them,” he said.

“The ultimate question is, did we do things within the parameters of the law? I still contend we did,” he said. “There’s nothing to go back and do. We’ll go forward with the judge’s ruling and make sure we abide by whatever ruling he says.”

Graham said whole reason he asked for the opinion was because the budget committee he was on at the time had appropriated money for the SRO budget (in spring of 2006).

“It was a surprise to me and many others when we passed the budget in June of 2006 and all of a sudden changes are made to the SRO program,” Graham said. “The question was simply, can you make those changes and use that money without going through the budget committee and county commission for approval?” he said of the question he asked of the state attorney general.

“I don’t have a problem with the sheriff reassigning deputies. That’s within his prerogative,” he said.

Graham said he had always been told that any money used in one area that went to another area had to go before the budget committee and the county commission for approval. The only way to settle it was to ask for an attorney general’s opinion, he said.

“Obviously Mr. Bennett and the sheriff are on one side of this thing and myself and several other commissioners and concerned citizens, students and teachers are on the other.”

“If things are so bad, how can we build and staff a driving track and police academy?” Graham asked.

Graham said that now, commissioners should just begin looking ahead to next year’s budget process.

“That’s what I intend to do,” Graham said. “I think Mr. Bennett is right. For this year, it’s probably too late. It’s unfortunate,” he said. “The protection the county commission voted for and funded is not in the schools like it is supposed to be. We voted and funded approximately 21 School Resource Officers and now we only have 11.”

Ballard said commissioners should be aware of the SRO budget line when preparing the 2007-08 budget. “They should be looking to see the money is allocated to that line item for whatever SROs we intend to fund,” he said.

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