published Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Hamilton County Commissioners cool to Sheriff Jim Hammond's money woes

Sheriff Jim Hammond.
Sheriff Jim Hammond.

BUDGET OVERAGES BY THE NUMBERS

$40,000 -- Gail Palmgren case, overtime and towing/rigging

$60,000 -- Inmate medicine (above $250,000 in budget)

$65,000 -- Storm/tornado overtime costs

$100,000 -- Overage for food

$165,000 -- Overtime for jailers, including transporting inmates for health and mental health care

Source: Hamilton County Sheriff's Office

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond plans to ask county commissioners Thursday for an extra $275,000 to get him through the final two weeks of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

But at least five commissioners say the sheriff should have stayed within his budget like the rest of the county's constitutional officers and departments.

"I think it's unfair that the sheriff asks for more when the other departments are held to the amount they are given," Commissioner Joe Graham said.

Hammond confirmed Friday that he will ask commissioners this week for the budget amendment. He referred specific questions to Director of Administration Don Gorman.

This is the second year the sheriff has asked for more money to make up a deficit and the third year in a row commissioners have criticized his spending.

In 2010, they criticized Hammond for personally taking over a Chevrolet Tahoe purchased through the $200,000 narcotics fund designated for undercover vehicles. Last year commissioners questioned raises and the pay of his son, Jimi Hammond, a $35-an-hour part-time webmaster in the sheriff's office.

This year, commissioners are rumbling about a $6,779 trip in April to Reno, Nev., during which the sheriff and two others rented a BMW X5 luxury sports utility vehicle for $80 a day, racking up a total bill of $707.

Hammond later wrote a personal check to repay the difference between the $385 car he originally booked and the BMW upgrade, Gorman said.

Officials said only one of those instances, the Tahoe trade, appeared to violate county policy or individually exceeded the sheriff's budget.

But commissioners said all the incidents raise eyebrows because of the appearance of administrative overspending of tax dollars earmarked for law enforcement.

On Friday, Commission Chairman Larry Henry questioned Hammond's travel and his payments to nonessential part-timers, who have received more than double the $145,000 budgeted for them.

The sheriff's budget this year includes $131,000 for meetings and seminars in administration and public information, up from $105,400 in 2011. Hammond is asking for an increase to $142,000 in the 2013 fiscal year.

"The sheriff's going to have to cut back on a lot of stuff, particularly this travel," Henry said. "I'll make a recommendation that all travel be cut out but the transportation of prisoners."

After a May commission meeting, Hammond was recorded addressing his corrections officers regarding recent Times Free Press reports about spending on part-time employees and potential raises, among other issues. In the recording, Hammond said that more than $200,000 in overtime and $100,000 in fuel overages likely would push him to ask county commissioners to cover a deficit in his $27 million budget.

"Politically, my enemies are going to say, 'This is Cadillac Jim, he's spending more money than he's got, you need to throw him out of office,'" Hammond told the officers. "On the one end I'm caught between the fact that I need people and I don't have the money to pay them."

County Finance Director Louis Wright said that end-of-year budget amendments to cover operating deficits have been rare during his three-decade tenure, and last year's request from Hammond for $325,000 was the first he could remember.

In 2011, the sheriff cited, among other reasons, overtime to deal with the April 27, 2011, tornadoes. Overall last fiscal year, the sheriff's office spent $638,258 of its reserves, the 2011 audit showed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursed the county for about $220,000 of that, Hammond said.

The sheriff again will ask to draw from reserves, which are about $2 million. He must have a budget amendment authorized by the commission to dip into those funds.

Graham stopped short of saying he would oppose amending the sheriff's budget.

"It's according to where it comes from," he said.

Commissioner Jim Fields said he's concerned that the sheriff could be asking for more for the second year in a row.

"He had his budget," Fields said. "He needs to live within his budget."

Gary Hayes, a consultant with the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service, said commissioners might be forced to amend the sheriff's budget -- at least for salary overages.

Though the commission could ask the sheriff to move money among budget categories such as food and travel, salaries and overtime must be paid if officers have worked the hours, Hayes said.

"If not, then they've got wage-and-hour issues," he said. "If those people have worked beyond their hours, they're going to get paid."

Though the sheriff's largest overages are in jail overtime and fuel costs, several divisions within his department also are overspending on smaller accounts such as miscellaneous purchasing services, duplication and printing supplies, telecommunication supplies, books, miscellaneous supplies and meetings and seminars.

Commissioner Fred Skillern said other county department heads slow nonessential spending when they realize cost overruns in other accounts could cause a shortage in funds.

Hammond told the Times Free Press in May that the highway department can stop paving but that his department can't stop housing inmates and patrolling the county.

about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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