By the numbers:

Cunningham's memo puts figures to controversy of sheriff's deputy pay

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

The question of funding better pay for Blount County deputies took another turn Jan. 26 when County Mayor Jerry Cunningham sent a six-page memo to Blount County commissioners. The mayor’s document and attachments was in answer to the commissioners’ requests on sheriff department’s funding. In the memo, Cunningham addressed commissioners’ questions, cataloged pay for every county employee and compared average pay of county deputies to those in Alcoa and Maryville.

In a conversation with Blount Today, Cunningham explained his memo. He commented on criticisms waged against the sheriff that compare his budget with the sheriff offices in Washington and Sullivan counties and characterized some critics of the sheriff as "chronic malcontents."

Blount County Sheriff James Berrong weighed in on Cunningham’s memo and the possibility his deputies may try to unionize.

He then took some commissioners to task for giving false information to deputies that Berrong was sitting on a $600,000 pool of money that could be used for raises. Finally, he said the perception that "Jimbo always gets what he wants" is a frustrating and false perception.

The loss of 36 deputies since July 1 put the low deputy pay in the spotlight earlier this month. What are the facts regarding the pay controversy and what are the perceptions? Blount Today spoke with Cunningham and Berrong about their take on deputy pay and county politics.

During a meeting on Monday, Jan. 29, Cunningham and Berrong discussed the memo Cunningham sent to commissioners.

The mayor said he chose to issue a memo to quell any rumors that might be started if he answered each commissioner’s questions individually. He also warned against anyone using the information for political gain.

Cunningham said the spirit and intent of the memo was to answer requests from the commissioners. "I chose to do it this way rather than try to answer each request piecemeal," he said. "The spirit and intent was to be open and give them the information they wanted. In visiting with the sheriff, he understands the spirit and intent."

"I think all folks would be well advised not to try to try to read into this memo things that simply are not there," Cunningham said. "Also, to try to use this memo for political enhancements or crucifiction would be a terrible mistake because anyone who tries to use my memo to attack the sheriff or anyone else will find me rallying really quickly to the side of the person attacked."

Cunningham said he was very concerned for the parity of the sheriff’s employees as well as the other county employees. "I’m concerned about their wages in comparison to the municipalities," he said.

The mayor said that since 1999, as the county budget has increased over all, the sheriff budget has increased too, but it has remained steady at 46 percent of the total budget. "That’s a very telling figure," he said.

One of the attachments to Cunningham’s memo listed the budgeted salaries and another the gross salaries. Gross salaries are actual pay after adjustments such as overtime pay or bonuses for employees who are exempt from overtime pay.

Another attachment compared the average budgeted salary and the average gross or actual salary for 2006 of employees
on all levels in the sheriff’s office, and in the Alcoa and Maryville police departments. The mayor used W-2 information to get these figures, when the numbers were requested by county commissioners.

Cunningham said this information painted an unfair picture. "It’s an unfair comparison just with W-2’s. We don’t know how many hours of overtime one officer worked versus another," he said. "You can’t make those comparisons, but they (commissioners) wanted total dollars, and I had to give it to them."

Cunningham said disseminating all these salary figures might help spur the debate to improve pay for county employees and to work toward implementing pay grades and steps. "Teachers have it, and we don’t. There was a study commissioned a few years ago, and it was never implemented. I’m having my human resources personnel pull that up, and we’re going to work on that," he said.

The mayor said he was committed to all county employees being treated equally and fairly and being on the same playing field. "Maryville and Alcoa have these plans in place. They have built in cost-of-living raises. We’ve got to get into the 20th century in taking care of our people," he said. "Good government doesn’t come free. We’re digging in and carefully analyzing to make sure we’re using revenue the best way possible and looking for the best ways to raise other revenues."

Cunningham said he’s watched throughout the years as commissioners held the tax rate simply to get re-elected. "I was never impressed. I knew a day of reckoning was coming, and we would get hit with a 10 or 15 percent tax increase," he said. "Citizens are bright and smart enough to know groceries and fuel and housing go up, and they expect taxes to go up in a reasonable way. The sensible way is to do it a few cents at a time rather than a 25 cent increase."

Cunningham took aim at "self-ordained experts" who he said claim to know how to be a mayor, how to be a sheriff, how to be anything in government, but "don’t do their homework."

The mayor said one Blount County resident recently began giving out unsubstantiated information comparing the Blount County Sheriff’s Office with the sheriff offices in Washington and Sullivan counties. The study, which was prepared by Jim Folts with Citizens for Better Government, showed that the Washington and Sullivan sheriff offices served the same number of people across the same area but on substantially smaller budgets.

"Comparing Blount to Washington and Sullivan isn’t fair because the square miles covered by Blount deputies are much more than deputies in Washington or Sullivan counties," Cunningham said.

Cunningham said that in Washington County, Jonesboro and Johnson City have annexed out to the point where they control a large portion of the county. "Their population is 107,000 and within corporate boundaries, it’s 60,000," he said.

Cunningham said that more of the population in those counties are actually covered by the cities, "which takes a tremendous load off the sheriff."

Cunningham said the Washington County sheriff is policing about 50,000 where Berrong’s deputies are policing between 80,000 and 90,000.

Cunningham said the picture is the same in Sullivan County because Bristol and Kingsport have annexed so much. "When they’re policing less area, they need fewer men and vehicles," he said.

Folts did not return a phone call to Blount Today on Tuesday.

Cunningham’s memo addressed a lot of different things, including what the mayor referred to as "cheap shots" at the sheriff’s office regarding a new mobile command unit Berrong purchased although the current vehicle was not very old. "A citizen stood up and acted like that mobile command center was bought with Blount County money. That’s grant money.

Anybody with a lick of common sense would support any of us who are trying to get grant money out of Nashville or Washington," he said.

Cunningham’s memo addressed a lot of different things, including what the mayor referred to as "cheap shots" at the sheriff’s office regarding a new mobile command unit Berrong purchased although the current vehicle was not very old. "A citizen stood up and acted like that mobile command center was bought with Blount County money. That’s grant money.

Anybody with a lick of common sense would support any of us who are trying to get grant money out of Nashville or Washington," he said. "That’s our tax money coming back in, and it would be very short-sighted not to pursue that."

Regarding bonuses the sheriff gave, the mayor said throughout all county offices, employees are aware that some are compensated for extra work with overtime while others are compensated with adjustments or bonuses.

"Accordingly, since this was no big secret, I’m sure it hasn’t affected moral. Everybody needs to understand that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in our dedication to doing what it takes to ensure fair and comparable wages for the wonderful people who serve Blount County," he said.

Cunningham said the public should be careful that a vocal minority of folks he called ‘chronic malcontents’ didn’t obscure the picture of how wonderful Blount County is. "Constructive criticism is one thing. Distortion is another thing. It is distrustful, dishonest and disingenuous," he said.

Cunningham criticized those he called "self-proclaimed experts," and said the public should weigh carefully what they say. "It is evident that a few of these ‘experts’ certainly enjoy their television time in front of the commission. Often times as a I leave a commission meeting I drive carefully in fear of being run down by these folks in their haste to get home and view themselves on TV," he said. "I say this tongue in cheek, but I sincerely feel that if the TVs were not at the commission meeting, then the self-proclaimed experts would disappear."

Sheriff Berrong said on Tuesday that his staff was notifying personnel that their W-2 salary information for 2006 had been disseminated to the commissioners.

"Does that affect moral? I don’t know," he said of deputies knowing their salaries, which are public record, were being given to the commissioners.

The $600,000 figure is a surplus from funded but unfilled positions in the sheriff’s office, Berrong said. If he did relocate that money, the sheriff said he would give a straight equal amount to each employee instead of a percentage amount base on each person’s pay.

"It’s going to be across the board. I will spread it out equally, each person at the sheriff’s office is a valuable asset to the community," he said.

Berrong said what bothered him was that commissioners were telling his employees that the surplus is a "pot of money" with which he can readily equalize salaries.

"There is $600,000 that is considered a surplus," Berrong said, because the positions have not been filled. "I can’t get anyone to work for this. I’m going to ask the commission if they will spread this out to employees. In a month or two later, I’ll be back with deficits in gas and medical that in past years we have transferred (from the sheriff’s office surplus)," he said. "I’m going to let them make the tough decision of whether we give across the board supplements, or they say no and fund the operating costs."

The sheriff criticized individuals for trying to turn his employees against him. "Some of these people know the only way they can be successful against us is to fragment us and disseminate (false) information," he said. "I don’t want my employees or the public to be punished or in jeopardy because of a political game aimed at me. It is politics, and I am the target, whether it is old commissioners, new commissioners and some Democratic commissioners."

Regarding whether deputies would try to unionize in light of recent developments regarding low pay, Berrong said deputies have started holding meetings in the past ten days that don’t include upper-ranking personnel.

Berrong was asked about the chances of his personnel unionizing.

"Would I be surprised? No. In the past, I think my men and women have trusted me to do the best I can and make sure they get good pay and equipment," he said. "They’ve seen now I can’t do this on my own."

Berrong, whose nickname is Jimbo, was asked about the perception some hold that "Jimbo always gets what he wants," regarding budgetary items.

"I do hear that," he said. "It is frustrating to hear that. The last five or six years, the sheriff’s office is operating the same way it was, but without an increase."

The sheriff said that in the late 1980s and through the 1990s the county executive and county commission worked with him and gave him and the employees what they needed and through hard work they were able to clear up deficiencies in the department.

"At the conclusion in the ‘98 and ‘99 budget, we told them we were in great shape. Pay was good, and vehicles were good, and we didn’t need anything. From that point on, I have been punished, and my employees have been punished for my success in the late 90s."

Berrong said since 1999, any increases in budget have gone to uncontrolled items such as health benefits, dependent healthcare and retirement. The sheriff said he and his staff are going to be good stewards of the office and that includes operating a good jail that generates revenue for the general fund by holding federal and state inmates.

"The frustrating part is people not realizing or appreciating or recognizing the benefit of the (jail) revenue. I guess that’s the frustrating part that a lot of commissioners can’t see the revenue," he said. "That’s above and beyond what the sheriff’s office does, close to $12 million we’ve generated since 1999."

The sheriff said there’s no question the jail generates a lot of money, but it goes to the general fund and not the sheriff’s office. "All we ask is to approve an adequate budget for us and recognized the revenues are coming in to offset the expenditures," he said. "The main issue is taking care of employees."

Assistant chief Jeff French prepared a 5-page memo in response to Cunningham’s memorandum to the commission. In it, French addresses pay issues, bonuses and vehicle purchases.

In his memo, French compares the sheriff’s office budget to the general county budget from 1998-99 through 2006-07. The percentage of the budget that was approved for the sheriff’s department during those years was consistently between a low of 43.7 percent (2000-2001) and a high of 47 percent (2002-2003), with French calculating an average over the past nine years of 46.0618 percent.

French also addresses recruitment and retention, giving the breakdown of costs to the county for 24 weeks of training a new patrol officers, showing a figure of $21,149 per new hire, which includes salary, academy, uniforms and equipment, pre-testing and ammo for qualifying.

The entire memos from Mayor Cunningham and Assistant Chief French are available on the Blount Today website at
www.BlountToday.com.

Citizens for Better Blount website is www.blounttn.net.

Citizens for Better Government and Citizens for Blount County’s Future are having a public meeting titled "A Tale of Two Counties" at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 19, in the Sharon Lawson Room of the Blount County Public Library.

The presentation will look at a comparison between Blount County and Washington County.

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