Sheriff: 12.8 percent cuts will cause consequences in safety

A clearly exasperated sheriff told the Blount County Commission’s Budget Committee on Tuesday night, Feb. 22, that the 12.8 percent budget cut that is being asked of his agency would have “consequences eventually” in safety.

He added that such cuts would prevent him from performing his statutory duties and fulfilling his oath of office.

“I want the citizens of Blount County to know,” he said, that if cuts at that level are made, “it will not be my decision. The County Commission will make the decision.”

Sheriff James Berrong’s comments came during and following a budget committee meeting Tuesday night.

The Blount County Sheriff’s Office has operated under stressful budgets for the past few years, resulting in positions being left unfilled and, according to a letter the sheriff wrote to commissioners this month, employees not receiving any pay increases in nearly three years.

The cuts, he said, would result in 47 positions being eliminated and the possible termination of such programs as the Internet crimes against children unit, school resource officers and participation in cooperative drug enforcement efforts.

His agency would become, Berrong said, reactive in its law enforcement rather than proactive, and the county would experience a decline in the level of service.

Jerry Orr, who works for Berrong but is assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration in Knoxville, said that since Oct. 1 about 300 methamphetamine labs have been found in the nearly 30 counties covered by that office. Only a handful, though, were in Blount County, which he and Berrong attributed to criminals’ awareness that the penalties are stiffer and the enforcement more strict in Blount.

The sheriff added that meth lab cleanup costs must now be borne by the county rather than the federal government. Those costs run in the thousands of dollars for each occurrence and are mandated by law.

County Mayor Ed Mitchell has asked all offices in county government to reduce costs by the 12.8 percent figure to avoid an increase in property taxes.

Representatives of the General Sessions judges, E-911 Center, Drug Court, clerk and master’s office, Circuit Court clerk, county trustee, county clerk, register of deeds and the property assessor’s office all made presentations to the committee. Nearly all requests failed to hit the 12.8 percent target, saying the cuts would be too severe.

In other budget measures, at the Blount County Commission meeting on Thursday, Feb. 17, Blount County commissioners voted to refinance a $49 million balloon payment due June 1.

The move was at the request of Finance Director Steve Jennings who said voting on the measure during the February meeting would give the county time to take care of all the details necessary to ensure the transaction goes smoothly. While some commissioners asked why not wait 30 days to explore options, Jennings advised they move immediately. “Interest rates could go up because you waited 30 days to go to market. We have to borrow money to pay it off by June 1,” he said. “My plan is to use March and April to get this done.”

The balloon payment was brought about as a short term solution to refinance debt for school and library construction after the economy tanked in 2008. The measure passed 13-4 with commissioners Mark Hasty, Monika Murrell, Mike Caylor and Tonya Burchfield voting no and commissioners Jim Folts, Roy Gamble and Steve Samples not present.

Blount Today editor Lance Coleman contributed to this report.

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