Number's game

Sheriff wants county to increase pay to stop deputies' flight; commissioners say, 'reallocate'

Photo with no caption
By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

The low pay of sheriff’s deputies in Blount County grabbed headlines recently when Sheriff James Berrong announced that 35 deputies had resigned in the six months since the 2006-07 budget started July 1.

Berrong is asking the Blount County Commission to help stop the hemorrhaging of his staff by funding better pay for deputies.

For many commissioners, however, the solution is for the sheriff to re-allocate funds within his budget, not ask for increased funding.

According to salary lists, Blount County deputies begin at $23,000. Starting salaries for patrol officers in the city of Maryville is $30,492 and $28,288 in the city of Alcoa.

Berrong said the public needs to be aware of the difference in pay between the sheriff’s deputies and officers for the cities of Maryville and Alcoa. The cities have been proactive in keeping well-trained and experienced employees, the sheriff said.

"When I get a call, and I see a cruiser from another agency pull up and see my people pull up, it goes through my mind that there’s a $20,000 difference for (individuals) doing the same job," he said. "I don’t think people realize we don’t all make the same."

Commissioners weigh in
Commissioner and former deputy Scott Helton said there have always been vacancies at the sheriff’s office. Helton said he remembered Assistant Chief Deputy Jeff French telling commissioners during the budget process in 2006 that there were 31 vacancies. Deputies and other employees have left in mass from the department in the past.

"I can remember several years ago, several left and went to work for Wackenhut in the private sector, which is a lot better pay," Helton said.

Helton said that for as long as he could remember, Alcoa and Maryville employees have always been paid better, with better benefits, than county employees, whether it was road employees, school employees or law enforcement personnel.
"The pay has always been better for city governments than it has been for county governments," he said.
Helton said it was totally up to the sheriff’s discretion as to how he appropriates funds within his department.

"For the commission to specify a person’s salary would be micro-managing, and the county commission can not do that," Helton said.

County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said he was concerned about the low pay for deputies. "I’m deeply troubled that the people at the low end of the salary spectrum are not compensated more for the good work they do," Cunningham said.

Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves said the sheriff’s office budget woes might be resolved using drug funds to offset operational costs.

"My understanding is the drug funds could be used to offset some of the operational costs of sheriff’s office, such as cell phones and patrol cars. Maybe by using those funds, we could free up money for personnel," she said.

Reeves said the drug money has to be used for one-time expenses, not ongoing costs. Perhaps if Berrong could make better use of that money, he could free up money for staff, she said.

"Of course I’m going to applaud him and his professionalism of service, (but) there’s always room for improvement," Reeves said. "When the county is broke, my hope is the sheriff would see himself as part of the team, and we all together have to find appropriate ways to rein in our costs," she said.

Berrong said any drug fund expenditure has to be an enhancement. "If sheriff’s office gets 15 patrol cars a year, the county commission could say, ‘You’ve got enough to buy five, and we’ll give you enough for 10," Berrong said. "It has to be used to supplement, not to supplant (operational budget funds)."

County Commission Chairman Bob Ramsey said the only way to rectify the pay discrepancies is to find revenue for the sheriff in the next budget. "Apparently, by the sheriff’s estimate, that is the source of our trouble. My suggestion would be to appropriate funding for the sheriff’s office which will probably be some sort of compromise between what he requests and an estimation of the needs by the budget committee," he said.

Commissioner Monika Murrell said the commission wants to work with every department. Murrell said there may be ways to reallocate funds within the sheriff’s office budget.

"The employees do an excellent job, they should be rewarded," Murrell said. "I’m all for looking at it and working with the department to make sure we do the best for them under the tight budget constraints we have."

Commissioner Steve Samples said the budget committee and the commission as a whole have to look in-depth at the entire
budget to see where tax dollars could be better used.

Samples said he understood that the sheriff’s office actually received an additional $700,000 in their budget over the 2005-06 budget. Berrong said that those funds paid for rising insurance and benefits premiums.

Samples said he wants to make sure that Blount County citizens get an adequate response when they need the assistance of the sheriff’s office or any other department in county government.

"When the taxpayers need assistance, they need to get it in a timely manner," he said.

Mass exodus
Berrong said pay for his deputies is substandard and the loss of employees since the budget took effect is proof of the disparity. In some cases, deputies are leaving for much smaller departments or simply pursuing different careers.

"Two weeks ago we lost a deputy to Polk County and their population is less than 20,000. Another left the same day to be a heavy equipment operator," Berrong said.

Chief Deputy Ron Dunn said, in some cases, deputies can make more in part-time work. "We’ve got a full time officer who wants to work part-time at UT. He can make more part-time basically over there than with us," Dunn said.

Berrong said turnover in the jail is nothing new because the environment and low pay make it the toughest job in the department. It’s the turnover in patrol officers that has been disturbing.

"We’ve never seen anything like this," he said. "You lose experience."

Dunn agreed. "We lost 222 years of experience," Dunn said of the deputies who have left.

Berrong said another issue is how long it takes to replace a deputy when they leave. "When a patrolman goes out the door, I can’t go through lists of applications. It takes six months plus months upon months of training," he said.

"You can re-train at an expensive cost, but you lose the experience. A veteran officer is going to make a better decision than a rookie. There’s no question we have gone back the last three or four years. Years ago, we had them in line, wanting to go to work. We never had vacancies. Now it’s almost a daily occurrence that someone is resigning," he said.

"It’s a daily conversation, absolutely," Dunn said. "How dire is the problem? We’ve been devastated over the last six months." Dunn said the sheriff’s office response times also have become longer.

"We used to average 7 minutes in ‘98 and ‘99, and now it’s around 20 minutes," the sheriff said.

"Twenty minutes is a long time if you’re in a dire situation," Dunn said.

Assistant Chief Deputy James Long said that in the past deputies wanted to be involved in other areas of the department, like SWAT team and crisis negotiation, to expand their capabilities to better serve the community.

"Recently, with all the salary and lack of raises and our budget being cut, some of those activities they’ve put time in for had to be curtailed or cut out completely," he said. "Moral is at an all-time low. The bottom line is administrators’ hands are tied. The chief and sheriff can only do with what they’re given and use the tools given by the legislative body. It’s like a mechanic trying to fix a car with a pair of pliers and a hammer."

French said he wondered if the public understands the pay discrepancy between the deputies and their counterparts at Alcoa and Maryville police departments.

"In my opinion, I don’t think they know what the discrepancies are," he said.

Berrong said even his own mother didn’t know about the discrepancies. "I don’t think they know we’ve got the worst benefits package of local law enforcement agencies and that the sheriff’s office (duties) are so complex," Berrong said. "We’re mandated to do a number of things the city agencies are not, by statute."

Berrong said unfunded mandates also have hurt his budget. When the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation stopped tracking sex offenders, it fell to sheriff’s offices to pick up the chore. "I’ve got less patrolmen on the road now than in ‘99 or 2002.

We had to take patrolmen and put them in that slot. What would happen if I didn’t monitor that registry?" he said.

Berrong said money generated by housing federal prisoners doesn’t go to his budget, but rather goes back into the county general fund.

"We’ve generated over $10 million since the end of ‘99, and that money went back into the general fund," he said. "If I
move all the inmates out, they would have to raise property taxes 10 cents (per $1,000 of assessed value)."

Funds raised through housing federal inmates fund other services such as roads and schools. "Our inmates are used to fund the schools," Berrong said.

Berrong said he and his administrators are passionate about fixing the pay discrepancies. "The main thing is, we want to do our job. Blount County is a great place to live, and it’s not by accident that we don’t have the shootings that Knoxville does or the methamphetamine labs like Loudon, Roane and Anderson counties have," Berrong said. "It is because we have been aggressive and have tools to do the job. Unfortunately, the last four years those tools have been slowly taken away.

There’s a price to be paid."

Berrong said his deputies can only do as good a job as commissioners let them do by how they’re funded. "It’s frustrating when a citizen calls and wants immediate response and we can’t provide it," he said. "It’s very frustrating."

Who should decide?
Commissioner Mike Walker questioned whose responsibility it was to raise the pay of deputies when the commission’s job is to approve department budgets, not individual pay.

"Do I think I have an impact on that? Sure I do. I realize we have an impact. It’s a little bit different than what is being projected in the press. That’s not laying blame. It’s just the way it is," he said. "As far as solutions, unfortunately, the solution always comes back to one thing: More money. The county is limited as far as where that comes from.

"I’ve always said that at some point in time we’re going to have to sit down and prioritize the needs of our districts," Walker said. "Law enforcement, education and roads are my three main priorities. Unfortunately that makes me look bad in other spotlight, but that’s what we’re charged with. Our county is fortunate to have a lot of other benefits, but those three are necessities."

Commissioner David Ballard said commissioners haven’t had a chance to see what the viable solutions to the problem are. "I’ve been receiving letters from the sheriff on a regular basis talking about fuel costs and the need for new mattresses. This is a new situation," he said.

Ballard said that as the commissioners begin planning budgets for next year, the sheriff and other department heads might consider putting together proposals for salary increases. "That would be the only way I’d know to address it. We need to see figures to know what we’re looking at," he said.

Commissioner David Graham said the record shows that county, state and federal dollars have funded the sheriff’s budget each year, and that his budget has grown. "Not always his budget request, but (each year) his budgets have exceeded his previous year’s budgets in each of the eight-plus years I’ve been on the county commission."

If funds are being allocated for officers, and those officer positions aren’t being filled, the money isn’t going back to the general fund, Graham said. It remains in the sheriff’s budget year-to-year.

"What happens to that money at the end of the year? Has he ever considered paying his rank-and-file officers bonuses out of it? But that’s not my call, it’s his," Graham said.

The rank and file meeting Berrong had on Jan. 11 at Heritage Middle School was a matter of protocol and not a publicity appeal, Berrong said.

"While we were there, we talked about how I was proud of them and their loyalty to the community and the department,"
he said. "I tried to build up their moral while they were there."

Berrong said any new funding from the county would go to employees to try to keep the services at past levels and to fight off turnover. Berrong said his meeting wasn’t done to garner publicity to get increased funding by going around the commission or the county mayor.

"It’s not an end-run," Berrong said. "The numbers speak for themselves. If I have a nine-year sergeant (for Blount County) versus a nine year sergeant in another agency, there’s a $23,000 difference," he said.

Berrong said commissioners have a hard job to do. "At the same time, so do my employees," he said. "Your organization is only as good as your employees."

Deputies perspective
Deputy Joe Taylor said he believes his job is a calling. "I want to help people, and they are making it hard to do," he said of the commission not funding higher pay.

Jarrod Millsaps has been with the sheriff’s office for 10 years. "You get to the point you get discouraged with everything going on, especially when you see friends leaving for other (agencies)," he said.

Deputy Jerry Orr has been with the Blount County Sheriff’s Office for 21 years. "It’s extremely tough. You put in 21 years into a career you always wanted to do. Things are better for a while, then you step back as far as benefits and pay," he said.

Orr said in past few years whenever the deputies got pay increases, they lost most of the value of those raises because of increases in benefit costs.

Michelle Stiles has been with the sheriff’s office for five years. "I just think we only want what everybody else makes when we cover more territory," she said. "It’s only fair the commission bring us up to par with them."

Melissa Boling said she works in the Blount County Jail because she enjoys what she does. "My job is rewarding. Of all the jobs I’ve had, I’ve never had a better employer than the sheriff," she said.

Boling said deputies live week to week. "But who doesn’t these days?" she said. "The hard part of the job is the commission not making a way for us to get raises."

Boling said the commission needs to give the deputies the tools to do their jobs better. "If they don’t give us the tools in pay and benefits, they let the public down," she said.

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