Council clashes over law enforcement pay plan; budget passes first reading

The Metro Council received copies of the 2022-23 Metro Budget prior to Monday’s meeting. The budget passed first reading by a 10-4 margin. (Lynchburg Time Photo)

LYNCHBURG, Tenn. –– Monday night’s Metro Council budget vote fell along predictable lines.

On one side, Metro Budget Committee members argued that the expenditures column felt as lean as they could possibly make it. State-mandated salary increases, increased fuel costs, increased utility bills, and a jump in employee benefits premiums were all out of their hands.

“There’s nothing exciting in here” Budget Committee member Gerald Burnett explained. “The only real change is the sheriff’s department pay scale and that feels necessary.”

On the other side, a handful of council members argued that Metro needs to bring expenses more in line with estimated revenues.

During open discussion, the main point of contention revolved around a plan by the Metro Sheriff’s Department to bring their pay scale in line with surrounding counties in order to attract and keep good candidates. It’s a problem that Metro Sheriff Tyler Hatfield says he’s been battling since he took the office and one his predecessor experienced as well. In fact, former Sheriff Mark Logan appeared with Hatfield during the April Metro Council meeting in a show of solidarity.

“We’re actively losing employees in my department due to this,” Sheriff Hatfield stated in April.

In fact just two weeks ago, Metro lost a 15 year employee to a surrounding county due to that county’s ability to pay more and offer retirement benefits.

The proposed 2022-23 Metro Sheriff Department budget reflects a $134,040 increase over the previous year with the Moore County Jail budget adding another $127,372. That $261,412 increase represents the only major year-to-year increase from any department.

It’s an increase that Metro Council member and mayoral candidate Keith Moses says is too much, too soon.

“We’re spending more than we’re bringing in,” he argued on Monday.

Conservative revenue numbers

Like any budgeting group, the Metro Budget Committee members say they tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to revenues.

For example, in fiscal 2020-21, which is the last complete audited budget cycle for Metro Moore, the group guessed that Metro would bring in around $4.4 million dollars. Actual audited revenues reflected over $5 million. Combined with the fund balance from the previous year, that left Metro Moore with a surplus of around $1.2 million that year. On average, Metro Moore County has enjoyed an actual audited fund balance of over $1 million for the past eight years, according to publicly available audit information.

Audited numbers for 2021-22 are not yet available because the fiscal year does not end until June 30.

The solar farm project, tiny home community, proposed Hilton hotel, and increased occupancy tax will all add to Metro’s bottom line over the next few years but those increases do not appear anywhere in the latest budget proposal because those projects are not yet live.

Too much, too soon

Metro Council member and mayoral candidate Keith Moses says the pay scale plan needs to wait until they are realized. He voiced the loudest objections on Monday and stated that though he agreed in principle with the pay scale plan, he thought attempting to do it all in one year was “too much.” Moses suggested rolling out the plan over the next two or three years.

Budget Committee member Bradley Dye pushed back.

“These employees give 24/7 commitment to our community and they deserve a full commitment from us now. If we don’t, we’re gonna lose a lot of good people,” Dye said.

“There is no baby step,” added fellow Budget Committee member Gerald Burnett. “You either pay them what they deserve or they leave.”

According to Sheriff Hatfield delaying the pay scale adjustment will cost Metro more money in the long run for several reasons. One, training new officers costs between $7,000 to $10,000 dollars. When Metro hires and trains a new officer only to lose them to a surrounding county later, Metro loses that investment and is forced to start over again.

Another example from Sheriff Hatfield revolved around corrections officers at the Moore County Jail. Sheriff Hatfield explained that currently the jail employees six of the total 12 corrections officers it needs to run the facility. Without them, that department is racking up overtime hours.

Dye added that without adequate jail staff the inmate mowing program, which provides an estimated $100,000 worth of landscaping and mowing services to the county would need to go away because there wouldn’t be enough staff to take inmates offsite.

“The jail has to have two corrections officers onsite at all times according to state law,” Sheriff Hatfield explained. “If we lose one more CO, we’ll need to halt that program.”

“The alternative is to cut expenses,” Moses persisted.

“Okay, what should we cut?” Dye countered.

Budget passes by a 10-4 margin

As proposed, the Metro Council would set the new tax rate at 2.355 – a four cent increase over the previous years. On a $100,000 home the new rate would result in an estimated $10 of additional tax burden.

Following the discussion, the 2022-23 Metro Budget passed by a 10-4 vote. Yes votes included Shane Taylor, John Taylor, Gerald Burnett, Bradley Dye, Gordon Millsaps, Amy Cashion, Jimmy Hammond, Houston Lindsey, Meghan Bailey, and Wayne Hawkins. No votes included Keith Moses, Sunny Rae Moorehead, Peggy Sue Blackburn, and Arvis Bobo.

There will be a public hearing to hear comments for or against the proposed budget prior to the June meeting on Monday, June 20. That public hearing will take place at 6:15 p.m. •

{The Lynchburg Times is the only locally-owned newspaper in Lynchburg and also the only woman-owned newspaper in Tennessee. We cover Metro Moore County government, Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Nearest Green Distillery, Tims Ford State Park, Motlow State Community College, Moore County High School, Moore County Middle School, Lynchburg Elementary, Raider Sports, plus regional and state news.}