Underwood upbeat in 5 percent budget plan

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 9/20/17

Walker County Sheriff Jim Underwood sounded upbeat Monday about a proposal to only cut his department by 5 percent, saying he would try to do his part in …

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Underwood upbeat in 5 percent budget plan


Walker County Sheriff Jim Underwood sounded upbeat Monday about a proposal to only cut his department by 5 percent, saying he would try to do his part in helping the county’s finances.

He and two other major department heads talked about the difficulties of cutting in their budgets at Monday’s Walker County Commission budget hearing. The commission announced Wednesday it will hold a called meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday to pass a new budget, as well as budget amendments and inmate medical agreements.

Probate Judge Rick Allison spoke to the commission, saying he understands cuts need to be made and that every department needed to be cut 10 percent.

“Out of my budget, everything — salaries, health insurance, retirement, life insurance, workman’s comp, unemployment — all that, in my budget totals $820,000,” Allison said. “So then you add the $153,000 or $154,000 that I use for postage, office supplies and everything — you’re wanting me to cut my budget $98,000.” 

Allison said he still doesn’t have as many employees he had when earlier cuts were implemented years ago. He in time got two part-time employees, but those have now been lost.

“I don’t have anywhere to cut,” he said. “I looked and cut another $14,000, and then I found another $1,000 or $1,500 in one of the contracts. I’ve pretty much cut the budget in all the places I felt like I could cut it. I’m not going to come up here and tell the commission with less employees, because I don’t feel like I can. As a department head, I think I am obligated to the citizens to offer some type of service.”

Allison said, “I could stand here and say, ‘Yeah, I could cut my budget the rest of that. I’ll just cut out doing mailouts for tag renewals notices, for business licenses.” However, he said cutting out tag renewal notices will only clog his already-congested office with even more people that would be difficult to handle, adding that the county also gets a $2 mail fee.

His office probably handles 1,200 mailouts which people pay $2 to have mailed, he said. “That is pretty well covering a lot of that,” he said.

He said revenue is generated on the judicial side.

“I think the tough decision is trying to figure out a way to generate more revenue,” Allison said. “I know y’all attempted that through a sales tax. But we can’t just keep cutting services to the public when they are entitled to that, because they do pay for that.” 

Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie said he cut the requested 10 percent from his budget. “I’ve probably got less fat in mine than any department anywhere, unless it is in solid waste. I’ve been here 21 years and I’ve never failed to give back to the General Fund at the end of the year. I’m proud of that record. I don’t have any more I can cut,” he said.

He said he had employees who have not been to school. Even though he said the employees “critically need” to go, he did not have the money to send them.

“I’m a team player. I’m going to work. I’m going to do what I have to do in my department to make it work,” he said. In January, when Davis proposed a mid-year review of the budget, he said if he needed something or was behind, he would work with the commission.

Sheriff Jim Underwood, who was accompanied by an attorney to the meeting, said his office works 24/7 every day of the year, which results in more cost than other agencies.

“When I took the oath as sheriff, I swore to protect the safety of the people in this county. I will do the best I have with what we have. I know the budget is a projection,” he said.

Underwood said he appreciated the proposal in Davis’ version of the budget to cut the Sheriff’s Office, the county jail and the district attorney only 5 percent, while other departments would be requested to cut 10 percent from their budget.

“At 5 percent, I appreciate that,” he said. “That’s a lot. When you are talking $5.4 million, 5 percent is a lot of money. Ten percent was a lot of money. But I can assure you this: There is nobody down there who is working who are people we don’t need. If we didn’t need them they wouldn’t be there. We’ve always stayed below the allotted numbers the commission has allowed us to work. We’ve probably got six to eight vacancies now.” 

Underwood said the department still has problems, as the inmates, even as they are locked up, cause problems that cause a safety problem for the inmates. As a result, he said officials have to make sure enough people are present to run the jail and protect the inmates, officers and the general public.

He noted the jail, built in 1998, is aging and has problems. “it would take a lot of money to put that jail back where it needs to be,” Underwood said. “But we gradually work on it.”

The sheriff notes he does help, adding the department has a legally proper fund and over the past couple of years, he said he spent more than $400,000 for equipment, such as bulletproof vests, Tasers, weapons and vehicles. “I never bring that to you, because I know funding is tight,” he said. “When I have funding and I can afford to do that, I do that. That’s just what I do. I try to help where I can, and I’ll continue to try to help where I can.

“We work 200 percent more than the other agencies. They work 100 percent and we work 300 percent, because we have to be there around the clock. That’s the difference. But I appreciate your help and we’ll try to curb where we can and cut where we can to help you out.”

He also said he would not be opposed to some of the rules that have been proposed to the Walker County Civil Service. “As long as it is fair with the employees, it is fair with me,” he said. “We do have the largest employer in the county. I think it is between 75 to 90 positions down there, so a lot of the people do work for me. I appreciate each and every one of them for what they do. They help keep this county safe 24 hours a day. God bless them and God bless you.” 

After Monday’s meeting, Underwood said he is “very optimistic” about the situation.

“I see things we can maybe make work, certainly talk more and get to where we need to be,” he said. “I’ll do my part to do better.”