Commission OKs new jail officers

Jeremy Nash

After lengthy discussion Monday, Loudon County Commission moved forward with the budget committee’s recommendation to approve four additional corrections officers to help improve safety at the county jail.

Budget Director Tracy Blair said the cost per year for each officer will be $58,892, which includes annual wage and the county’s matching portions of Social Security, Medicare and an assumption each will take the option of family insurance coverage.

Four officers would amount to $235,000 initially being taken out of the fund balance.

Commissioner Harold Duff motioned, and Commissioner Leo Bradshaw seconded. The vote passed 7-2, but it wasn’t before commissioners talked in length about the matter. Commissioners Van Shaver and Earlena Maples opposed. Commissioner Matthew Tinker was absent.

“We’ve been chastised a little bit by some commissioners on our financial prowess and that we’re losing money so fast that we’ll surely be broke,” Shaver said. “If we do take the quarter million dollars several times from the fund balance after the budget’s adopted, we certainly will. We will be broke, and that’s a very serious problem. That’s a big hit on the fund balance.”
Shaver said he was in favor of officer safety, but wished Sheriff Tim Guider’s staff could find a way to locate money in their own budget, noting the $235,000 would be a reoccurring expenditure that would be “extremely hard, and that’s a risky business.”
There are 27 people being paid out of the corrections officers line item in the jail budget, Guider said, but only about 19 are “really” corrections officers. He noted three are guards at the Justice Center and Loudon County Courthouse, two are cooks and two others are administrative.
Shaver asked Blair if funds could be taken out of the sheriff’s drug fund.
Guider said state law did not allow reoccurring expenditures to be taken out of such a fund.
Assistant Chief Deputy Jimmy Davis, along with Guider and Jail Administrator Lt. Jake Keener, were present to inform commissioners why additional staff was needed.
“My opinion is — and it’s always been my opinion — you can’t involve surrounding counties in what they do,” Davis said. “They don’t have our situation. They don’t ... the design that we have, which takes more officers. Answering your question earlier, that is really why we haven’t asked for more employees because we’ve had this big elephant in the room about a new jail addition, or a new jail or whatever, hoping that would get solved before we added them because the designer guy would probably tell you, you design a jail right you don’t need as many officer additions as you might in a poorly designed facility.
“So we’ve kind of tried to save the county a little bit — not overly just keep asking for people with the situation the county’s in,” he added.
Davis said if commission absorbed the cost now, Guider and his staff would look for ways to “tighten our purse string” through the year.
The hiring process would take about a month to get someone on board, Guider said.
In a follow-up interview, Keener said the jail population is about 130 inmates.
Bradshaw said the county shouldn’t delay funding four additional officers to help improve safety. He noted it was the county’s responsibility to keep employees safe, especially “because of our slowness in taking care of the problem” with jail overcrowding.
“I don’t think the taxpayers could totally fund enough people to keep everybody safe in the jail,” Maples said. “I don’t think that would be possible, the people that might be actually needed to do that, and it’s not that I am not for being safe. I think we brought the jail up numerous times. I think we’re working on it. I think we’ve just not come up with enough agreement for anything to pass so far, so until we can come up with something that the majority feels like they can pass and that we can fund.”
Jail committee members brought before commission last month a recommendation to build a new $31 million jail and justice complex in Loudon’s Centre 75 industrial park, but commissioners failed to bring the issue to a vote. Commission has also considered a $17 million option to add on to the current facility that would include additional bed space, a sally port and more parking spaces.
Maples said she wasn’t in favor of taking $235,000 out of the fund balance, especially with the county facing two lawsuits and an uncertainty with the Hall Income Tax.
Moving forward with the four officers would be a “cost avoidance,” Bradshaw said.
“I don’t think you can sit here and say three more people hired is going to keep anybody down there from getting hurt, prisoner-wise or (officer-wise),” Maples said.
“Anytime you can avoid somebody getting hurt ... then you take advantage of that and you keep it from happening,” Bradshaw said in response. “You’ve got to believe these people because this is what they do.”