Commission sells race track, agrees to Loudon County animal control deal, looks at deputy pay

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

The Blount County Commission got rid of a race track, got into the animal control business and requested the budget committee research the cost of equalizing pay in the Blount County Sheriff’s Office with that of officers in Maryville and Alcoa at Thursday night’s commission meeting.

Public comments on the race track were brief, with two homeowners near the former Smoky Mountain Speedway voicing concern about noise levels. The county commissioned then deeded the property to the Industrial Development Board so it could be sold to Kevin Coffey, who intends to operate it as a race track.

ThunderWorld USA owner Coffey answered questions regarding the track. He said he would work to ensure that all racecars at the venue would use mufflers to lessen noise pollution, and that he would work with the county whenever it wanted to use the property for community events.

Jim Ownby, Brickmill Road, Maryville, came on behalf of the Ashbrook Farm Homeowners Association and asked that commissioners not allow racing to resume on the track. "If the commissioners in their wisdom choose to sell it, we ask that existing county noise ordinances be enforced," he said.

Ownby said allowing the race track to operate again could cause dangerous traffic situations. "We think the additional traffic would significantly increase the danger to residents as well as others using the road coming from the racetrack," he said.

Commissioners unanimously voted to deed the property to the Industrial Development Board. The board was scheduled to meet on Tuesday to sell the property to Coffey for $820,000.

Following the vote, Coffey sounded relieved, and said he would begin preparing the facility for racing this season.

"It’s overwhelming," he said of getting unanimous approval for the deal. "I was hoping to get 11 (votes). I didn’t think we’d get everyone’s vote. I’ve poured so much into this the last six months."

Coffey estimated they would have about 100 teams racing at the facility. He hoped to have the facility ready for racing by late March. He also said he had spoken with a Valdosta company about bringing a 10-day fair to the facility. The vendor could bring booths and rides and tie each day of the fair to a different main event.

"We would have a different theme for each day of the fair," he said. "We’d like to do that as early as July 4."

Coffey said he planned to make short-term fixes soon and also would begin making long-term improvements. "I’m going to have to meet insurance compliance regulations," he said.

Much of the electrical components of the track will have to be replaced, and Coffey also will have to make improvements to the stands.

"We’ve got a lot of work to be done. It’s going to take five years to get the facility where I want it."

Race fans will notice a difference in the facility after he begins work, said Coffey. "They will see we take pride in the facility," he said. "It will be neat, clean. It’s going to take a lot of hard work."

Commissioners then took on the issue of lack of animal control services in the county. The county has been without animal control service since Jan. 1 when a contract ran out with the City of Maryville to provide those services. The county did not renew the contract because they were unwilling to double the $138,000 being paid to the city for those services.

Commissioner Steve Samples said the animal control committee had asked that a request for proposals be put out for area groups to present ideas for developing an animal shelter and adoption facility as a long-term solution to the animal control problem. He then said Steve Phipps with Blount County Humane Society suggested the county speak with Loudon County about helping with animal control in the short term.

Mayor Jerry Cunningham told the commissioners he spoke with Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp about animal control, and Arp pledged his county’s support.

Cunningham said that while Arp advised that Loudon County had no desire to get into the area-wide animal control, they would help Blount County with animal control.

Cunningham visited with Arp and expressed confidence in the way the shelter in Loudon County is managed, saying the personnel there work to go beyond the traditional three-day waiting period before putting animals down so as to accommodate pet adoptions.

Cunningham outlined the details of the proposal, which included Loudon accepting an unlimited number of cats and dogs from Blount County for a flat fee of $4,000 per month. The temporary agreement would run through the end of the fiscal year (June) and then could be re-evaluated, Cunningham said.

The commissioners then discussed and passed a motion giving Cunningham authority to hire an animal control officer.

Discussion of pay centered around the fact that a qualified officer is getting ready to be laid off from the Maryville Animal Shelter because of the loss of the contract with the county. Current salary for that employee, the mayor indicated, was in the neighborhood of $24,000 annually.

The county would also have to have a vehicle to transport the animals to Loudon. Mayor Cunningham announced that a former ambulance used by the Air National Guard would be donated to the cause.

Comments regarding items not on the agenda focused on sheriff’s deputy pay. Much media attention has been focused recently on the low pay of Blount County deputies and how it has contributed to the 35 individuals who have resigned since July 1.

Lt. Patrick England addressed the commission about the staff meeting called on Jan. 11 and how deputies were frustrated with low pay and turnover. "During this meeting, it became evident that No. 1 concern voiced by Sheriff’s office employees centered on wages and unnecessary dangers caused by manpower shortages," he said.

England talked about the emotional and physical scars deputies endure. The emotional stress on deputies is only compounded when deputies feel their community and the commission don’t support them, he said.

"Losing 35 employees in the past six months, is that not enough?" England asked. "The decisions made today might be the only thing that protects us from civil liability tomorrow."

Deputy Joey Parton then addressed the state of the sheriff’s office and how it is becoming a training ground for individuals to get great training and then leave for better paying jobs at other agencies.

"The Blount County Sheriff’s deputies are some of the best trained in the state," Parton said. "The problem is we are training them for everyone else and not retaining them for ourselves."

Parton asked the commission why he and other deputies were forced to work second and sometimes third jobs to support their families so they can continue working with the sheriff’s office.

Parton said the deputies are "fed up" with the revolving door of qualified employees leaving because "they can no longer afford to work here."

The sheriff’s office employees weren’t the only individuals who addressed the officer’s pay issue. Jim Folts with Citizens for Better Government praised the county’s effort in dealing with animal control and the race track and then suggested that the sheriff’s office could possibly pay deputies more if the sheriff wasn’t buying so many new cruisers.

Folts said that a state audit showed that at the end of June, 2006, the sheriff’s office had 269 vehicles and 256 employees, which includes "part-time employees, secretaries, programmers, medical personnel, jail guards and cafeteria workers -- lots of people who do not need cars," Folts said.

Folts then took Berrong to task for recently purchasing 24 more vehicles at a cost of close to $500,000. "Why does our Sheriff’s department need nearly 300 vehicles, including 39 SUVs and 14 pick-up trucks to support far less than 256
employees?" Folts asked.

Folts said the cost of maintaining and fueling the additional vehicles could provide money for the deputies.

Commissioner Mike Walker asked that the budget committee investigate how much it would cost for the county to equalize the pay of sheriff’s officers with that of Alcoa and Maryville police departments. "I want to see what an apples-to-apples cost would be," he said.

Jim Folts
Citizens for Better Government
Addressing the commission

We just have a few questions tonight.

According to the state audit report, the Sheriff’s department had 269 vehicles at the end of June.

According to the adopted budget, the total number of budgeted employees in all the Sheriff’s cost centers, including the jail, is 256.

The budgeted employee number includes part-time employees, secretaries, programmers, medical personnel, jail guards and cafeteria workers -- lots of people who do not need cars, as well as the 34 positions the Sheriff says are unfilled.

And yet, the Sheriff purchased 24 more vehicles last week at a cost to the taxpayers of nearly $500,000.

Why does our Sheriff’s department need nearly 300 vehicles, including 39 SUVs and 14 pick-up trucks to support far less than 256 employees?

As recently as 2002, the Blount County Sheriff got along with 135 vehicles.

It may be of interest to you that the Sheriff’s department in another East Tennessee county with nearly the same population and the same number of arrests as ours gets the job done with 125 vehicles.

Back in December, the Sheriff placed an order, valued at more than $350,000, for a mobile command unit. According to the state audit report, the Sheriff already had a mobile command unit, acquired in 2005. Could you explain to the public why we have to replace this expensive piece of equipment after just two years?

Thank you.

Lt. Patrick England
Blount County Sheriff’s dept.
Addressing the commission

First I would like to thank the ladies and gentlemen of the commission for allowing me the opportunity to speak before the commission tonight.

My name is Patrick England, and I am a citizen of Blount County.

I stand before you tonight a humble man who has always held great pride in how I serve the community as a Deputy with the Blount County Sheriff’s Office.

I began my career at the Blount County Sheriff’s Office in 1993 as a correction officer. In 1994 I was transferred to the Patrol division as a Deputy Sheriff. In 1995, I was assigned to the School Division as one of the first two SRO’s established in Blount County and was assigned to William Blount High School. In 1999, I was promoted to Sergeant over the School Division and cross-trained as evening shift sergeant for patrol.

In 2001 I was transferred to the Criminal Investigations Division as a Sergeant. In 2004, I was promoted to Lieutenant.

I am here tonight to share many concerns that I, along with many deputies at the Blount County Sheriff’s Office, have.

These concerns came to a head just this past week when the Sheriff conducted a mandatory departmental-wide meeting required by CALEA accreditation. During this meeting it became evident that the Number 1 concern voiced by Sheriff’s office employees centered on wages and unnecessary dangers caused by manpower shortages. The concerns were echoed by many deputies, and it became evident that this meeting was the first of its kind in nearly 14 years of service.

These deputies carry many scars bestowed upon them by this profession. Some physical and some emotional. I can tell you tonight that the emotional scars are much harder to deal with than the physical ones.

I pose the following questions to you:

Have you ever responded to an accident where a three-year-old little boy had been just run over by a vehicle as he chased his cat across the roadway? Watched his mother hold him in her arms and beg and scream for you to help? Knowing deep inside you that there was nothing that you could do.

Have you ever investigated a death scene where your training and experiences were the determining factors in revealing that the husband had murdered his wife inside their home, moved her body to a detached garage and attempted to stage her death as a suicide by hanging her from a rope?

Have you ever responded to a stolen vehicle call and, while you were investigating the call, the subject ran into a dark room and began reaching into a closet? All of a sudden, when his hands appeared, there was a gun. He looked into your eyes, trying to decide exactly what he was going to do next when he realized that you had already retrieved your duty weapon in self defense. You watched as he turned the gun upon himself and committed suicide just feet away from you.

Have you ever walked in from work and had your children ask, "How did work go, daddy?" Not wanting to, but you had to tell them that little white lie because, if you did not, they would be afraid to go to sleep at night. So that they would not worry if daddy was going to come home from work even though he has promised them a thousand times before.

I am here tonight to let you know that I have.

These emotional struggles that deputies deal with daily only become compounded when they feel that they do not have the support of their peers, employers, and, in this case, the commission.

We are dealing with these kinds of cases and we watch as officers just across the street make as much as $25,000 more per year.

Deputies at the Blount County Sheriff’s office strive for a community where our children and grandchildren can walk the streets without heinous crimes.

Not having a Meth problem doesn’t come by chance. Not having kidnappings and murders, like what happened in Knoxville just weeks ago, are not strokes of luck. It’s proactive policing at its best.

The Blount County Sheriff’s Office and its employees strive for excellence, but when you have employees who are eligible for food stamps and governmental assistance, I ask you, "Is that fair?"

Losing 35 employees in the past six months, is that not enough?

Would it not be more prudent to pay these officers a competitive wage so that they could continue serving the citizens of Blount County? Instead of paying monies that could be used for salaries, we are using these monies to train officers.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I do not have the answers tonight, but I can express the concerns of the men and women of the Blount County Sheriff’s office. Let’s not have a knee-jerk reaction the first time we have an innocent officer killed in the line of duty. Because the decisions made today might be the only thing that protects us from that civil liability tomorrow.
I am Patrick England, and I thank you for your time and attention.

Corporal Joey Parton
Blount County Sheriff’s dept.
Addressing the commission

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the opportunity to address both you and the citizens of Blount County here tonight. My name is Joey Parton, and I am an employee of the Blount County Sheriff's office where I have been employed for five years. I have come tonight to ask for your help. I am well aware that the budget woes that Blount County now faces were inherited by many of you. Many of you had no involvement in bringing about the problems you now face. You are, however, going to be responsible for finding the solution, and I hope that this at least is one of the reasons that you sought the office you now hold.

I come before you tonight to tell you that we, as employees of the Sheriff's office, can not continue to go forward with the status quo. The Blount County Sheriff's office is fast moving toward being a training ground for other agencies in the area.

Men and women seeking a career in law enforcement are coming to Blount County where they can be hired, attend an academy, get a small amount of experience for their resume, and then move on to other agencies where their entry level salary is several thousand dollars higher than it is here after 2 to 4 years of employment. Since July 1, 2006, 34 employees have left the Sheriff's office to move on to other jobs. Their reason for leaving is simple: Salary and benefits.

This leaves the employees and administration, as well as the citizens of Blount County, in a very precarious position. The administration now has to find a qualified person to fill this vacancy. The training staff has to train them at a cost of thousands of dollars. The citizens of Blount County ultimately pay for this, as well, as the less tangible cost that they are less safe and secure because of fewer trained officers on the streets. This is a revolving door that has to be stopped.

If you are attempting to manage a business, you recruit the best employees, the cream of the crop. You then train these individuals to do the best job possible. Then you retain these employees to make your business run as smooth as possible.

The Blount County Sheriff's office is in position to do only one of these with the current budget status: Train. And at that we do an excellent job.

Blount County deputies are some of the best trained in the state. The problem is, we are training them for everyone else, and not retaining them for ourselves.

We are unable to recruit. How do you recruit to a job where someone will be paid substantially less than at other agencies, and where their health benefits will cost more, but pay for less?

Retention is not possible. How can you expect someone to work on a job long-term when they cannot adequately provide for their family? As I said before, I have been an employee here for five years, and I have been forced to work a second and sometimes third job to provide for my family. And, sadly, most of my colleagues have to do the same. I became a deputy sheriff to help people, to help those that have problems that they cannot solve on their own. Why do I have to work a second job to subsidize my income so that I can continue to do a job that I love?

I hope that you as commissioners became involved in public service for the same reason that we as deputies did: To help people with resolving the tough problems that they themselves cannot resolve. This county has problems, problems that will continue to grow exponentially over time if they are not solved. I am here to give notice, ladies and gentlemen that we, as county employees, are fed up. We are tired of the revolving door of qualified employees leaving because they can no longer afford to work here. We are tired of being passed by year-after-year in pay and benefits by other agencies in this county, while we are expected to answer an ever-increasing number of calls for service and enforce the laws in a much larger area. When you factor in the rising cost of living in this area, my pay continues to go down. We are tired of risking our lives daily for below-average pay and benefits, and we want that to change. The employees of the Blount County Sheriff's office are professional men and women who chose a career, not just a job, a career in law enforcement, and we deserve to be compensated as such. We are asking for a salary and benefits package that is equal to the other law enforcement agencies in this county.

It does not make sense economically to continue on the path we are currently on, paying thousands of dollars to train when you can not retain employees. I chose law enforcement as my career so that I could help resolve problems that others could not resolve themselves. Now county employees have a serious problem that we can not resolve, and we are looking to you for a resolution.

Thank you for your time and attention.

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