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Budget woes impact law and order in Benton County

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(From left) Director of Schools Mark Florence, Sheriff Kenny Christopher, and County Mayor Mark Ward.

By Sabrina Bates

Benton County government and its sheriff’s office are at a stalemate. Time and again Sheriff Kenny Christopher asks the County Commission to properly fund the Benton County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO), and often he has to go away empty handed. Meanwhile, county officials report that BCSO is fully funded.

Sheriff Kenny Christopher said his team at the BCSO and jail are taxed as recruitment efforts to add more personnel are falling short. Budget woes are at the top of Christopher’s list of what keeps him up at night.

It remains to be seen how a state grant for funding of school resource officers (SROs) will be utilized before it is lost in the next fiscal year. With only two SROs among the seven schools in the Benton County School System, some families wonder if their children are safe. With limited officers patrolling Benton County’s roads and neighborhoods, some also wonder about the safety of its residents.

Christopher said three only BCSO officers patrol one end of the county to the other around the clock. Sometimes, he is one of those officers. During the past 20 years, Christopher said the number of violent crimes certainly have increased in Benton County. 

The FBI provides an annual crime report and offers suggestions on the number of officers law enforcement agencies should employ to adequately maintain law and order. The sheriff said the recommendation for BCSO is 31 officers, but BCSO only has 20 officers. 

Christopher said that the county has proposed cutting the overtime line-item in his budget. This is not an option, he said. Since the start of the fiscal year on July 1, BCSO has utilized $76,931.14 (79.04 percent) of its $97,328 overtime budget. The Fiscal Year ends June 30, 2023.

In response, Benton County Mayor Mark Ward said the cutting the overtime line-item would allow for a $1 per hour pay increase for current and future deputies in BCSO. Increasing further line items would add to the “maintenance of effort” funds, which means an increase equates to the same allocation of funds for following years. 

The debate between the county and the BCSO over the sheriff’s budget has been ongoing for the last eight years, Christopher said. Ward was elected in August of this year as the county’s mayor.

Ward asked county budget administrator Charlie Cooper to present a comparison report of deputy pay offered by neighboring counties. Ward claimed Benton County’s pay scale was “in the middle” when compared to counties such as Henry and Perry. Christopher said BCSO is at the low end of the pay scale for counties in this area.

Christopher said his officers top out at $18.62 per hour. He claims BCSO will spend time and money training a new deputy, only to have them leave for higher pay and better benefits in neighboring counties or even the Camden Police Department (CPD). 

“Our deputies are the first on the scene of medical calls, fires, or other crises. We provide court services, and we are expected to maintain law and order. We want to hire more SROs, but the county tells me they will only work for 8 or 9 months, then have to draw unemployment for 3 months. I can’t find someone who is actually willing to work who only wants to work 8 or 9 months out of the year,” Christopher explained.

Tennessee recently allowed a budget rollover of a $108,000 grant to add more SROs. The funding will dissolve after June 2023. Benton County Director of Schools Mark Florence said the system is waiting on BCSO to fill the positions. 

To receive the grant funding, a memorandum of understanding is needed between the school system and county government as well as a letter of intent for continued funding of any SRO positions after the grant money is expended. Benton County Schools Safety Specialist Steve Phelps said the system does have a letter of intent from CPD, but there isn’t one on file from BCSO. Phelps said BCSO is trying to find officers to fill the positions, but there is a nationwide shortage of law enforcement. 

The CPD and BCSO each provide one SRO to serve the county’s seven schools. To assist the school system, local law enforcement and members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol make frequent visits to the schools as well. Christopher said he also utilizes empty patrol cars parked at random schools throughout the county to serve as deterrents. 

The school system utilizes a Safe Schools grant to help fund their 50 percent portion for the salary of current SROs. At one time, the system had four SROs in the county. 

“We would love to have an SRO at every school in the county, instead of just two for all schools. We are looking at ways to help continue funding those positions. We will continue to work with the county commission and law enforcement,” Florence said. 

He and Phelps shared a plan presented by the Crockett County Sheriff to help fund SROs for that school system by creating an SRO Commission that developed a plan to add a surcharge to county residents’ electric bills. The program kicked off in August. Phelps has visited five districts in the state with fully funded SRO programs in an effort to gauge funding formulas.

Until a long-term funding plan can be implemented, Phelps said they will continually review safety within the schools and adjust safety protocols as needed, such as the use of vestibules and buzzer systems. 

Christopher said the county can spend $200,000 on astroturf for a revamped football field, but he can’t manage to get $250,000 for patrol cars to replace ones in his department with more than 140,000 miles. BCSO received six newer patrol cars in 2014. 

He added that the county claims sales tax collections are at an all-time high and a recent property assessment showed increased property values, but he spends his time fighting for more money in his budget. The county hasn’t increased the property tax rate during his tenure as sheriff, and he began his third term in August.

“I haven’t asked for anything we didn’t need. Just in insurance alone, we have seen a 20 percent increase. Our hiring pool is so small and increasing fuel costs and health insurance rates for families, that alone will eat you alive,” Christopher shared. 

Ward said BCSO could increase revenue through the housing of state inmates at its local jail. Christopher said he doesn’t have enough jailers to be able to increase his jail population count. The sheriff also noted that money received from housing state correctional inmates would go directly into the county’s general fund, not the BCSO budget.

The county mayor said a comparison of previous budgets for BCSO shows not all of the money available for personnel is being used each fiscal year. Those funds do not roll over if they aren’t used year to year. 

During fiscal year 2021-22, BCSO used $103,285 of its $70,000 gasoline line item. This fiscal year, BCSO has $70,000 budgeted for gasoline and has utilized $33,059.28 (52.77 percent) of it so far. Of the $25,000 budgeted for maintenance and repair service of vehicles, BCSO has used $21,557.31 (80.92 percent). Last fiscal year, BCSO spent $40,262.04 for vehicle maintenance and repair. The original budget called for a consistent $25,000.

There was $90,000 budgeted for medical claims of inmates in 2021-22 and 2022-23. Last year, BCSO spent $225,176.07 in medical claims. This year, BCSO already is at $53,632.70 (59.59 percent) spent from that line item.

Of the $86,000 budgeted for electricity, $37,381.57 (43.47 percent) has been spent this year. The food supplies line item looks overburdened as well, as $61,429.19 already has been spent of the $100,000 budgeted. Last fiscal year, BCSO spent $108,967.31 in food supplies.

Ward said he understands there is a high turnover rate among law enforcement agencies, not just in Benton County. He said he wants to work with BCSO on their budgeting and plans to continue meeting with personnel to streamline department requests, purchase order transactions, and other much-needed workshops.

“We need everybody working together to make Benton County better,” Ward concluded.

“BCSO is trying to do what it is supposed to do, which is to protect the people of Benton County and their property,” Christopher stressed. “I don’t know how we are supposed to do that successfully if county government won’t allocate the money that we must have to operate.”

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