When Sheriff Jim Hammond and his top deputies laid out their plans for the upcoming year two weeks ago, the Sheriff's Office was already approximately $300,000 over budget.
"We had a lot of unusual cases this last year that were taxing on resources and very expensive," Hammond said, specifically noting the recent Gail Palmgren case, which took $32,000 just to recover her wrecked Jeep from the side of Signal Mountain. "To date I'm already about $300,000 behind in my budget for things I have very little control over."
Rising gas prices - the department has a fleet of more than 200 vehicles - and food prices - which mean a heftier price tag for the approximately 1,200 meals served each day in the county's jails - are the main culprits.
Should Old Man Winter up the ante this year, even more money will be lost to overtime, Hammond said. And then there's the matter of a new firing range, which will cost around $8 million, and a new jail, estimated at $30 million.
"One of my jobs as sheriff is to balance county tax dollars as best I can with the services we provide to the citizens of Hamilton County to keep them safe," said Hammond, noting that he "serve[s] the whole county, including the city of Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Signal Mountain and East Ridge."
With that in mind, he is reaching out to the local business community to provide for several new programs.
More than $100,000 was given by local CEOs from various companies to launch the Sheriff's Foundation last November. Set up as an endowment fund administered by the Community Foundation, this money is only available by a vote of the independent nonprofit's board members.
Hammond is now approaching businesses surrounding Calvin Donaldson Elementary in Alton Park to ask for money to begin a new mentor program aimed at reducing gang activity. Chattem has already preliminarily agreed, he said. He's working to compile numbers to take back to the company and "another organization interested in stepping up to the plate."
This "innovative beta test" will basically be a more one-on-one approach to school resource officers, pairing officers with kids in at-risk inner-city schools known to be a feeder school for gangs and delinquent problems, Hammond explained.
"Our problem has always been funding for that," he said. "No one wants to spend money today to address a problem that hasn't become a problem yet. In the long run by doing that we're going to see a reduction in the problem. We're fixing a leak in the roof rather than taking a bucket and trying to intervene after the fact."
With deaths caused by activity from Chattanooga's 15 identified "solid" gangs consistently making the front page these days, a definite plan is needed, he said.
"I think we've got to get more serious about salvaging kids before they get into these things," said Hammond. "We've reached a point where we're going to lose economic ability in this town; we're going to lose tourism and people wanting to shop downtown unless we take a hardnosed approach."
He added that while the problem is mainly metropolitan at this point - "80 percent of anywhere you go in Hamilton County is safe" - ineffectual attempts to holistically address it will likely cause gang activity to move out into more suburban areas.
Part of the key is more citizen involvement, according to Hammond, who has helped start more than 120 Neighborhood Watch programs since taking office three years ago.