CARTER COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – In a letter addressed to the Carter County Commission, Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said the county’s law enforcement is in crisis due to underfunding from the county government.
“For eight years I have been asking for increases in pay for Sheriff’s Office employees in an effort to hire and retain good people,” Lunceford said. “This had increased in urgency the past two years.”
As of Friday, the Sheriff’s office was missing 51 full-time workers, according to Lunceford’s letter.
Lunceford outlined several opportunities for additional funding that were denied by the county, including a $5,000 hazard payment for all department employees using state funds during COVID-19 shutdowns.
“The County Commission denied these monies for the employees,” Lunceford said. “And bought a cardboard bailer instead.”
Despite some raises for the department, Lunceford stated his employee budget is 20% under where it needs to be to match nearby agencies and prevent his staff from leaving.
“This past month the commission again denied a $4000.00 bonus for all county employees after two committees had approved it,” Lunceford said. “The commission has ignored my pleas and we simply cannot compete with surrounding departments.”
Carter County Commissioner and Budget Committee Chairman Aaron Frazier said the commission will have to get creative to get competitive pay in the department without raising taxes.
“We’re never going to pay as much as Sullivan or Washington County. They have other revenue sources that we just don’t have,” Frazier said. “We’ve got to find the path forward in what revenue sources that we have and reclaiming revenues from locations that may have been overfunded.”
Lunceford said his office had warned the commission of staff shortages within the Carter County Jail, and that the reduced staff caused the closure of inmate work programs and the removal of student resource officers from county schools. Now, Lunceford said non-accredited staff are working inside the jail to prevent incidents.
“The jail has failed the Tennessee Corrections Institute inspection because of this and I look for them to de-certify it on September 9,” Lunceford said. “To help maintain the jail I have no choice but to re-assign P.O.S.T certified patrol officers (including SROs) to work in the jail. This helps us operationally, but will not help with the T.C.I. inspection, because they are not certified Correction Officers.”
Frazier said if the jail is decertified, it would mean a loss in state funding, as some inmates would be moved to another facility.
“The state inmates and such that are there would have to be returned, so the limited funding the state provides for those inmates would go away,” Frazier said.
Veteran staff that were pulled to work in the jail for shifts are regularly leaving the department, Lunceford said, and administrative staff are expected to fill empty time slots in the facility.
“When my staff and I sat down to try and find SROs for this school year it became painfully obvious that we could only provide four,” Lunceford said. “So this forces me to a position where I could not, in good conscience, renew the SRO contract with the school system knowing there is no way I could fulfill that contractual obligation. What I am going to do is provide one for each high school at the Sheriff’s Office expense.”
Lunceford said the move to pull officers out of schools was his only choice.
“The truth is there are no options. If there were, the choice to protect our children would be simple,” Lunceford said. “There will never be a higher commitment than mine, as Sheriff, to ensure their safety. For the remainder of my term I will do everything within my power to protect our schools. I have instructed the patrol shifts to make routine stops at the schools and have asked the Tennessee Highway Patrol to do the same. This is the best we can do with the current staffing levels we have.”
Carter County Board of Education Chairman Tony Garland said the district and the commission combine funding for SROs, but said they are stuck with what they get from the sheriffs office.
“It is disheartening. We also understand though that it’s not necessarily a financial situation because we do fund over eight positions, and then the commission funds the other, but it’s just a matter of availability,” Garland said.
Until things change, Lunceford said the limited police presence will have to do since each SRO must be a certified law enforcement officer.
“I wish I could tell you it will get better,” Lunceford said. “Unfortunately it won’t until the commission places a priority on hiring and keeping employees by paying a living wage. People that choose law enforcement as a career don’t do it for the money, but they should be able to take care of their families and feel appreciated by all, and they should absolutely make more money than fast food restaurant employees.”