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Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond speaks at a school safety forum in April. Hammond talked with Hamilton County commissioners Wednesday about adding more resource officers in county schools.

A Hamilton County commissioner pleaded on Wednesday with law enforcement to stretch the budget as far as it takes to get resource officers into all 79 county schools as quickly as possible.

But Sheriff Jim Hammond said even if he had $3.5 million or so to do that, getting those officers hired, trained and fully deployed will take many months.

Commissioner Tim Boyd passed a letter to fellow commissioners at Wednesday's agenda session asking them to join the push for more resource officers. Boyd cited the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, and noted that the Hamilton County Board of Education passed a budget that includes funding for seven new SROs, which county general government will train and equip, and seven counselors/social workers.

In other business

Commissioners voted 9-0 to apply for a $500,000 grant that would help create a second drug court, this time in Sessions rather than Criminal Court. Dan Saieed, director of development for Hamilton County, said the competitive grant would allow 30 more people to participate in drug court, bringing the total to 120. The grant would last for four years and would require a 25 percent in-kind match.

Commissioners will vote next week whether to allow the purchase of inmate-related medicines from the Minnesota Multistate Contracting Alliance. Don Gorman, from the sheriff’s office, said he worked with the alliance as well as Erlanger hospital on the deal, which he estimates could save the county from $100,000 to $250,000 a year.

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"As a County Commission we must ask the question: 'Have we really done enough to protect our schools if we do not fully fund the SRO program?" Boyd asked in the letter.

"If school safety is our No. 1 priority, then I would contend we can build on what has been done by providing additional SRO funding out of reallocation of funds within the county budget," Boyd wrote. He also suggested that Chairman Randy Fairbanks ask City Council Chairman Ken Smith if the city will kick in $1 million.

From the dais, Boyd said, "I never want to speak to a constituent, a grandparent, a parent, and try to answer the question, 'Why does my school not have an SRO?' and my answer is 'No funding.' That's not acceptable to me.

"SROs may not be an absolute answer to prevent these tragedies, but according to the sheriff, it's the best defense right now."

Later, Hammond, who was making his annual budget pitch to the commission, agreed keeping kids safe is the priority, but it still will take time to cover every school.

Getting the seven already in the school and county budgets in place likely will take at least until January, he said.

"I think we have to draw back sometimes and think about how fast we can absorb them," the sheriff said. Things such as building design and retrofitting also can make school buildings safer, he said.

All the county's high schools and all but one of the middle schools have SROs, Hammond said. The schools already pay for officers at Howard and Brainerd high schools, and Chattanooga pays for two more. The sheriff said he's asking all the county's municipalities to put some money in the pot for school safety.

And the sheriff's office has myriad other needs, Hammond said.

This year, his office took over the Silverdale Correctional Facility, whose $18 million budget had been under the county mayor's office. That, plus about $5 million in proposed new spending, bumped his overall budget proposal from $35 million this year to almost $59 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Hammond wants to hire more than 20 corrections officers, a double handful of deputies, and a selection of court officers, clerks and technical positions, along with filling more than a dozen vacant positions in all ranks.

"We had huge amounts of retirements last year" and are going to have more "major retirements" coming up, he said.

His budget proposal also asks for $3 million in capital spending for physical needs from software and hardware to 47 new vehicles.

"The sheriff's office is expensive ... but I'd be remiss if I didn't ask for what I need," Hammond said.

His office was among almost a dozen making funding pitches Wednesday, from the county clerk to the election commission, the district attorney and the agricultural extension service.

Mayor Jim Coppinger said there will be one more budget presentation before he presents the proposed spending plan to commissioners on June 6. Commissioners are expected to vote June 27.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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