Commission nixes Graham’s motion for tighter controls on SRO budget

One of the most talked about motions at the Blount County Commission workshop failed to get on the agenda for the July 17 commission meeting.

The issue dealt with how funding for school resource officers is listed in major cost centers for the budget and who has control over that money.

Discussion regarding the school resource officers came near the end of the three-hour meeting on commissioner David Graham’s motion to allow him to work with the county attorney regarding the accounting procedures that can be used to track funding for Blount County Sheriff’s Office school resource officers.

Graham wanted funds for school resource officers, more than $1 million during the 2006-07 budget year, to be pulled out of the sheriff’s general budget and placed in a major cost center by itself so commissioners could keep track of the funds.

The controversy began in early 2007 when Sheriff James Berrong moved school resource officers out of many of their school assignments and put them back on patrol when deputies began leaving the department over low pay.

County finance director Dave Bennett answered questions regarding the situation. He said the sheriff in 2007 didn’t need to ask the commission for permission to transfer funds when he moved the SROs out of the schools and onto the streets because the SRO money wasn’t in a major fund or cost center and, therefore, it could be moved at the sheriff’s discretion.

“The question was asked, ‘Should a transfer have been requested?’ This isn’t a major category. It’s a subcategory. There never was a major category for SROs, so there wasn’t a transfer to be requested,” Bennett said. “Then it comes to a discussion of: ‘Does the sheriff have the right to reassign those officers to general law enforcement?’ “

Commissioner Monika Murrell said she didn’t think it was necessary to send a question to the attorney general and that she just wanted to be able to see the budget numbers.

“I just want visibility.

Bennett said if the funds are moved, the deputies are moved. “You’re transferring officers who are deputies. If you move that money, is that putting those SROs back in the schools? Ultimately that’s a question for the sheriff to answer,” he said.

Murrell said the question was simply about keeping track of the money. “We’re trying to find some way to make that money visible so we know if they’re working four hours on street or four hours in the school,” she said. “I want visibility to that money. People have right to know if that money is being used on the streets or in the schools.”

Sheriff Berrong addressed the commission and said that at one point there were 22 SROs in the system. “Even if we had those back, we’ll have to add SROs for the two schools coming on line this year,” he said. “The population has increased, calls for service have gone up, and I work with a limited number of personnel.”

Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves asked if he would mind setting aside money for school resource officers in a separate major cost center so commissioners can track it.

“They’re all deputies. Even if they’re separated out, they’ll still be in my department,” he said. “I don’t see the purpose in it.”

Graham said that before the SROs were moved out of several of the schools, commissioners were able to track them through cost centers with account numbers 54113 and 54117. After they were moved out, those accounts were folded back into the major cost center for the sheriff’s office. Graham said he wanted it back to the way it was.

While Bennett said there wasn’t a need for Berrong to ask to transfer the money out of the SRO account when the deputies were moved out of the schools, Graham disagreed and said he should’ve asked for a transfer.

“If the sheriff wants to do something he can go to the budget committee, request a transfer, and come before the commission. The way this is is not satisfactory, and it’s going to come back to bite every one of us,” he said. “I can tell you, we are treading on thin ice, and, if one thing happens in the schools in the next two years I’m in office, I’ll be back up here reminding everyone what we should have done and didn’t do.”

Graham said commissioners needed to either put their stamp of approval on how the sheriff is managing the SRO funds, or commissioners could choose to have the money under joint control of the commission and the sheriff’s office.

A vote yes would have allowed Graham to work with the county attorney on language for a method for tracking the SRO funds.

Voting for the motion were commissioners Graham, Joe McCulley, Murrell, Dr. Bob Proffitt, Mike Walker, Wendy Pitts Reeves and Steve Samples.

Voting against the measure were commissioners Kenneth Melton, Gerald Kirby, Tonya Burchfield, Holden Lail, Mike Lewis, Scott Helton, Bob Ramsey, Steve Hargis, John Keeble, Mark Hasty and Brad Harrison. Not present were commissioners Ron French, Gary Farmer and David Ballard.

After the meeting was over Graham expressed disappointment and said teachers and parents should be concerned. “Today was the day the SRO program died. Within a very short time, there will be no SROs in the schools,” he said.

Murrell said she hoped constituents remembered that the sheriff refused to make those numbers visible. “Eleven commissioners supported that, by not passing the motion,” she said.

Berrong said the department’s budgets are always visible and that he put money in his budget for 12 new employees so they could get deputies back in the schools.

“I am for the SRO program. If these commissioners are so intent on the SROs, why didn’t they fund two SROs for the schools going on line this fall?” he said.

Berrong said that with the increase in population and the volume of calls, he had to pull deputies out of the schools. “I’m required to answer these calls and protect the citizens, not just while at school but 24/ 7, in general life. We made a very difficult decision but had no other place to draw from to keep up with growth,” he said.

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