Hawkins sheriff says he won't accept budget cuts that put his officers at risk

Jeff Bobo • May 12, 2018 at 6:30 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Sheriff Ronnie Lawson told Hawkins County commissioners Tuesday he realizes many of them blame him for last year’s budget crisis, but he’s put all the county resources at his disposal to good use.

In 2010-11, the jail budget was $1.8 million and the patrol budget was just shy of $2.2 million, for an overall Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office budget of almost exactly $4 million.

The proposed 2018-19 jail budget now shows $3.213 million for the jail and $4.041 million for patrol for a total of $7.254 million.

The difference is mostly in personnel

Several new positions have also been added to the sheriff’s roster over the past five years including 20 more jailers, mandated by a 2010 federal lawsuit ruling, and three new courtroom security officers, which are funded with litigation taxes.

In 2011-12 the sheriff also added four patrol deputies, two process servers, four detectives, two narcotics officers, one secretary, one transport deputy, two jailers and one jail cook.

In 2013-14, the sheriff added five school resource officers, and the Board of Education paid for an additional four SROs.

In 2014-15, the sheriff added another secretary and two inmate work crew supervisor positions, and in 2015-16 an inmate work crew coordinator position was created.

The crime rate is down

Over the last three years reported, 2014-16, the crime rate in unincorporated areas of Hawkins County has decreased from 45.3 offenses per 1,000 population to 39.4.

“I know y’all are saying the budget increase is my fault,” Lawson told the commission. “I asked for them, so y’all gave them to me, but everything I’ve asked for I’ve made work and I’ve showed you the difference. You can tell in the community people are proud of the sheriff’s office. They’re very professional. That’s unheard of these days, is the crime rate going down, and the men and women of the sheriff’s office are doing that. They work very hard.”

Lawson requests 8-10 new patrol cars

On Tuesday Lawson presented his proposed budget to the County Commission during its daylong hearings on the 2018-19 budget.

His only major new request was for 8-10 patrol cars, half of which would go to patrol and the other half to inmate transport. He said he needs 10, which would cost $425,000, but he can get by with eight, which would cost about $325,000.

They would replace vehicles that have more than 200,000 miles on them. Lawson noted that his inmate transport deputies travel across the country and they need reliable vehicles.

“If you remember, after the 2012 purchase of units I was asked by the commission for a solution to keep us from having a large price tag,” Lawson said. "I did implement a plan to get five units every year and rotate them out. But I seen the direction the budget was going, working with the Budget Committee. We forfeited that plan, and I took it out of my budget for last year.”

Lawson noted that many of the cars that aren’t being replaced have 150,000 miles.

“Be prepared in the next four years to spend $600,000 to $900,000 to replace those units,” Lawson said. “We cannot jeopardize the safety of these officers.”

The cost of running a jail

It costs $31.69 per inmate per day, and as of Tuesday morning, the Hawkins County Jail’s inmate population was at 298, including 113 state prisoners. Although the jail’s capacity is only 268, Lawson said the lowest number of prisoners housed there in a month is 293, and the highest is 310.

In the past 30 days, 590 people were booked into the facility.

The jail receives $39 per day to house state inmates, which generated $1.6 million last year. So far this year, jail inmate revenue is only $419,000.

In 2016, the inmate work program logged 12,168 hours, saving the county $121,685 in labor; last year it was up to 14,480 hours, saving the county $144,805.

A University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service study last year said the Hawkins County Jail is five officers short.

“I’m not asking for those officers,” Lawson said. “I’ll make it work. But I will not jeopardize the safety and well-being of my officers. I want you to know that when we run that far over capacity, and we have that many murderers, and that many state inmates, it’s a dangerous situation.”

Also on Lawson’s wish list

— Buy some new radios with unspent budget funds rather than turn that money in to the general fund. Most of the radios date back to the administration of former Sheriff Wayne Clevinger, who retired in 2002.

— Replace a walk-in refrigerator in the jail. The current refrigerator dates back to when the building was a K-Mart and was inherited by the HCSO. The estimated cost is $10,000. The sheriff replaced an $18,000 walk-in freezer at the jail last week.

“During my seven and a half years, I’ve tried my best to have the most professional, highly trained law enforcement office today,” Lawson said. “I think I’ve done that. Most of you understand that I have the only office that runs 24/7. Even holidays and snow days, my officers are always there, and I try to do everything I can and not jeopardize the safety of my officers who serve Hawkins County.”

He added, “Every year I have to fight for their salaries because they don’t get paid enough, and they risk their lives every day, even inside the jail. I tell my corrections staff now they’re in more jeopardy than my officers on the road because they have so many murderers, and so many mean people. They’re standing in the face of danger their whole shift.”

The commission will meet Friday to weigh all new budget requests.


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