Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond requests budget increase to raise officer wages

Sheriff Jim Hammond answers questions from the Hamilton County Commission in this 2017 staff file photo.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond is requesting a $5.6 million increase in next year's budget for the sheriff's office, in part to bump up officer salaries.

Hammond requested $61 million from the Hamilton County Commission Wednesday - an increase from this year's $55.5 million budget. With more than two dozen positions unfilled, Hammond said the county needs to increase wages to be competitive with surrounding agencies.

"Our biggest need right now is to get these officers the living wage that they deserve," Hammond said. "Which will allow them to do a class-A job and will allow us to hire those men and women that we know will do that."

With the additional funds, Hammond hopes to allocate $4.6 million for salary increases and six more full-time officers. He also hopes to increase mental health services for prisoners, deploy body cameras and smartphones and increase officers' uniform allowance.

District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey asked Hammond point blank if the sheriff's office has "the tools, the training and the equipment right now to do [its] job?"

Hammond thanked Mackey and the commission for recent investments in modernizing the department's equipment, but he emphasized that the department's salaries still lag behind surrounding areas.

"When you are so low on the scale, as soon as they get done with their training with us, they'll bail and go get higher pay from someone else," Hammond said.

The county now has 17 unfilled correctional positions and another 14 unfilled patrol officer positions.

Starting pay for a patrol officer now is around $35,000 a year, according to officials, and the proposed budget bump would raise that to about $39,000 a year.

The county's school resource program, in partnership with Hamilton County Schools, has also historically had a hard time recruiting officers for the specialized position.

Mayor Jim Coppinger acknowledged that the county has not seriously raised wages in years.

"It's really been about nine years since we've really looked at where are are in paying all our employees, but especially your officers," he said.

The sheriff's office also is seeking $380,000 to pilot the Frequent Users Systems Engagement (FUSE) mental health initiative, which along with funding from private institutions, would aim to help eliminate barriers to housing and medical treatment for repeat offenders and those who are mentally ill.

"We estimate about 40% of our prisoners would benefit from us being able to divert them into mental health treatment," Hammond said.

The additional budget increases include $400,000 for operational needs, such as adding two mental health professionals for prisoner care, adding $100 to officers' uniform allowance and jail maintenance.

According to Hammond, officers have not had an increase in their uniform allowance in almost two decades. Though the sheriff's office has considered purchasing uniforms and allocating a certain number to officers, for now sworn officers typically purchase their own.

"They look sharp in their uniforms and we want them to continue to do so," he said.

The budget increase also includes $610,000 for one-year's cost to deploy body cameras to officers and to equip the six new officers, which includes two school resource officers, two transport officers and two patrol officers.

Hammond mentioned he hoped that Hamilton County Schools would commit to funding more school resource officers, but additional officers were not included in Superintendent Bryan Johnson's proposed budget that he presented to the Hamilton County Board of Education last year.

In 2018, Johnson did commit an additional $500,000 toward hiring more resource officers. Now every middle and high school in the district has a school resource officer, but few elementary schools do.

"We do have vacancies, unfortunately, because of hiring issues and recruitment," said Capt. Shaun Shepherd, administrator of the school resource officer program. "I hate to beat a dead horse, but it is an issue. ... We make it our mission to find the best people we possibly can to put them in with our children."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.