Tenn. sheriffs: Funds are badly needed

By Matt Lakin
The Knoxville News-Sentinel

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Tenn. When the budget cuts slashed too deep, Jefferson County Sheriff David Davenport took the county to court.

Davenport, the president of the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association, settled his lawsuit against the Jefferson County Commission and the county mayor last month for an extra $182,000 and attorneys' fees. But he says he worries that more such battles could lay ahead for his department and others around the state.

"I wish we didn't have to spend a dollar on the criminal justice system, but my forecast for the future is that we're going to have to spend a lot more," the sheriff said. "It all gets back to the pie. There's not enough to go around. Usually we in law enforcement get the last slice, and then they want to carve it up so we're not even getting the meringue off the top. But if they need you in an emergency, you'd better be there."

Sheriffs around East Tennessee say they're running into the same problem. Even those who aren't battling county commissioners say they're struggling with shrinking budgets and thinning ranks as the region's population and demands for law enforcement keep growing.

"We don't really have time to patrol because of the volume of calls throughout the county," Claiborne County Sheriff David Ray said. "It's more reactive than preventive. We're getting by with the same manpower we've had for years, but we're answering an average of about 1,300 calls per month."

That's with four or five officers per shift patrolling about 1,700 miles of road in a county of about 30,000 people.

Ray said he's trying to increase revenue by housing state and federal inmates in the county's new jail. But more inmates can add up to a need for more jailers, which translates to increased personnel costs in a county that just this year began offering its deputies health insurance.

Putting officers, particularly certified deputies, to work isn't cheap. Anderson County Sheriff Paul White recently lost a bid to put eight more deputies on the roads after county commissioners said they couldn't afford to do it without a tax increase.

Rural counties can invest thousands of training and equipment dollars in their officers, only to lose them a few years later when they leave for higher salaries with city police departments, private security firms or other agencies.

"We've got about $15,000-$18,000 in them by the time we get them certified, pay for their tuition at the state academy and get them outfitted," Campbell County Sheriff Gary Perkins said. "We've got some great people working here. But the money's not enough. They're young, and they're starting off with families. I don't blame them for leaving."

Campbell County jailers start out at a salary of about $22,000, with road deputies starting around $26,300. The sheriff estimates that's a fraction of what some security firms such as Wackenhut in nearby Oak Ridge pay.

"I've had some that have wanted to come back, but they'd lose too much money," Perkins said. "It's kind of disheartening."

Blount County Sheriff Jim Berrong recently got the money to give his officers a 5 percent raise. Officials said that helps but doesn't solve the problem.

"We're still deficient in salaries because we're having to compete with Maryville and Alcoa, which pay their officers more than we do," spokeswoman Marian O'Briant said. "The county has not been able to keep up with that. Starting patrol officers got a pretty big boost, but it didn't do much for the guys that have been here five years or longer. And we have not added a patrol slot since 1998 or 1999."

Disputes over personnel costs helped lead to Davenport's lawsuit in Jefferson County. The sheriff said he would have lost four officers under a budget that still doesn't pay deputies overtime.

"I just didn't feel like I could do that in good conscience and be able to serve the community," Davenport said. "I wouldn't even have been able to get new vehicles. And I've already got close to $200,000 in overtime owed to my officers that they have to take as comp time."

Sheriffs around the area said they'd like to see a minimum scale for deputies' pay set by the state, one that would at least require a county to pay its officers as much as the lowest-paying city inside the county borders.

"The solution has always been money," Loudon County Sheriff Tim Guider said. "We've got to be ready for emergencies, and we can't be ready unless we're funded."

Copyright 2007 Knoxville News-Sentinel

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