Hamilton County corrections officer Jonathan Walker says he knew he might be laying his job on the line Wednesday when he appeared before county commissioners to ask for a raise for the department's officers.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond's budget, which seeks an extra $1.85 million next fiscal year, doesn't include a salary increase for staff members who haven't had a raise in four years. Walker, a six-year department veteran, cited problems in the jail such as high turnover among corrections officers who work one or more mandatory overtime shifts a week.
"We asked the sheriff several years now for a raise," Walker said. "I was just told that you all are the ones that gave the raises."
Hammond told the Times Free Press Friday he requests additional money for his staff every year. He told his officers the County Commission controls raises, Walker said Wednesday.
Commissioners are currently considering department budget proposals for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins July 1. County Mayor Jim Coppinger will present the full budget to the commission on June 14.
County Commissioner Fred Skillern told Walker that the sheriff is a constitutional officer who is responsible for administering his personnel policies and setting his own budget. Commissioners just appropriate the money, Skillern said.
Commissioner Greg Beck, who spent about 10 years as a corrections officer, said he sympathizes with the officers.
"If we gave you $10 million more dollars, probably the raise that you're asking for would not get to you," Beck said.
Walker said after the meeting that he is a member of a group considering whether to file a grievance against the sheriff in Chancery Court.
"I'm scared to death," he said. "But it's got to be done. Somebody has to stand up for the department."
Though Walker said he still has faith in the sheriff, whom the people elected, he plans to push for filing a grievance against him seeking a raise or pay equalization among corrections and patrol divisions.
"We're not here to be lied to. We're here to do a job," he said.
Walker's comments prompted Skillern to ask County Auditor Bill McGriff to prepare a list of the positions requested last year that went unfilled across all county departments and constitutional offices.
On Sunday the Times Free Press reported that the sheriff's department uses funds from vacant positions to help cover $324,000 in part-time jobs, more than half of which are not listed in the sheriff's annual budget request.
A comparison of last year's adopted budget and this year's request shows the sheriff's office received funding for two school resource officers, an information systems position, and a criminal investigations sergeant that were never filled. The salaries of those positions total $147,932.
"I feel, and maybe other people feel the same, that we have given sufficient money," Skillern said. "At least some people got very good raises in the area you work in."
Skillern handed out a list last week that included the salary of Ron Parson, who currently oversees the jail. Parson began working at the department in 2006 making $44,990 a year and currently earns $71,455 a year after a series of eight pay adjustments. Last year Hammond promoted Parson to jail supervisor the week after the Times Free Press reported that internal affairs records showed he had a jailer complete college coursework for him.
But this year's budget request doesn't include Parson in the list of jail personnel. Instead, for the second year in a row, Hammond's budget lists a vacant position for deputy chief of corrections at a salary of $62,504.
Parson is still listed in the patrol department in the budget request.
Walker gave commissioners an internal memo dated April 11 that outlines a "crisis situation concerning our staffing needs" in the jail.
"We are operating at very dangerous levels that compromise the security, integrity and safety of this facility and our division," the unsigned memo states.
Walker said most corrections officers have zero days off a week, and many are working 16-hour shifts to cover their mandatory eight-hour overtime slots.
County budget records show the department lost at least 19 corrections officers between last year's budget request and this year's. Eleven people have been hired, eight positions are vacant, and the sheriff has requested five new officers.
Hammond is also requesting an additional $66,000 for overtime and an extra $35,475 for longevity pay.
Hammond said last week that his goal is to ensure there are no more situations where only one officer is on a jail floor at any given time. A new corrections academy is currently under way.
Walker suggested that one of the ways to keep corrections officers longer is to boost their pay or to equalize it with their patrol counterparts.
Though Walker appeared Wednesday on his own behalf, he also serves as corrections vice president for the local International Brotherhood of Police Officers and plans to take what he learned at commission to the union.
"This was part of the process today," he said. "They wanted me to find out what the commission had to say."
One grievance process is still pending.
Several sergeants filed a grievance against Hammond seeking equalization of their pay and the Civil Service Advisory Board ordered Hammond to equalize the pay. He took the matter to Hamilton County Chancery Court, which held that the board didn't have authority to make the decision.
The sergeants appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which sent the case back to the Civil Service Advisory Board. The opinion states Hammond should take "necessary steps to eliminate the disparity." Earlier this month the county appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Equalizing the pay could cost about $75,000 or more if all the sergeants made the top amount, department officials have said.
That amount is not included in the sheriff's increased budget request. He recently said that is due to the pending appeal.
Walker's letter to commissioners seeks pay equalization between corrections and patrol divisions. On average, this year's budget request shows that patrol officers of the same rank make anywhere from about $4,000 to $6,000 annually than those in corrections.