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Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy P. Soyster, school resource officer for Central High School, talks on the phone in his school office in Harrison.

After a marathon discussion about school safety, the Hamilton County Commission passed its budget on Wednesday for the fiscal year that will start July 1.

Commissioners passed Mayor Jim Coppinger's proposed $833 million budget — which includes a 4% raise for employees, a 5% funding increase for volunteer fire departments and no local tax increase — on time and without amendment during their regular meeting Wednesday.

The vote came after about two hours of debate about officers at Hamilton County Schools.

In recent weeks, Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Chattanooga, has sparred repeatedly with Sheriff Jim Hammond over the sheriff's school resource officer, or SRO, program, which is chronically understaffed and fails to cover all of the county schools.

Last week, Sharpe proposed a budget amendment reallocating funds for that program to benefit the Department of Education's separate school security officer or SSO program, which employs less expensive officers without arrest authority to guard schools.

And again on Wednesday, there was discourse over whether the funds should stay with the sheriff, who hasn't been able to fill the positions historically due to law enforcement labor shortages, or to the schools, which are set to add 19 SSO positions this year but haven't yet had the chance to prove whether they can make the hires.

After being called upon by Sharpe, Hammond said his program shouldn't be disbanded but should be a hybrid with the schools system.

Hammond committed to, but said he can't guarantee, hiring additional officers to fill at least 32 SRO positions, and hopes to hit 40 by the time school starts in August.

But, that would leave many of the 79 schools in Hamilton County without an officer.

"To borrow a line from one of my friends, it doesn't matter how much education we give these kids while they're at school, it doesn't amount to a hill of beans if they don't make it home at the end of the day," Sharpe said.

"When I give my children away for the day for seven hours, or eight hours or however long it is to a school, the first thing I expect is that they return home safely to me that afternoon," he added. "And I expect it. I fully expect it. So I don't know what we do here, but we can't do nothing."

Hammond said his goal is to put SROs in high school and middle schools, while asking the school system to put SSOs in elementary schools and, ultimately, as backups to SROs in schools that need multiple security officers.

But the question remained of whether the sheriff could fill his funded positions and whether that money would be more likely to go to filled positions if it went to the schools.

According to Hammond's staff during the meeting, the sheriff's office has 30 unfilled correctional positions, 12 current openings in patrol — three of whom left just this week — and 20 vacancies on patrol once the additional positions funded by the now-passed budget are open.

There are currently 28 SROs, five in the hiring process and "looking good" to be hired, according to Hammond, which would put the department at 33 but still leave four vacancies.

And according to the sheriff, the SRO program has never been fully staffed.

Commission Chairman Chip Baker asked Hammond Wednesday whether the SRO program had ever been fully staffed.

"Not in Hamilton County," the sheriff responded.

"Let me clarify that a little bit," Hammond quickly added. "In its early inception, I think they were just trying to cover a few schools, but when it became apparent that we need to have one in every school, no we have never met that goal."

With the budget as is, Sharpe figured there would be about 56 combined SSOs and SROs — with about four indisposed by illness, leave or other law enforcement needs on a given day, according to Hammond — to cover the 79 county schools if things continue as projected for this summer.

Hammond added he would hire additional SROs if he's able, but would not commit to freeing up the money from unfilled positions to benefit the schools.

"Not the way I need it for my budget because, again, I've got a moving target with the corrections out there and all these other moving targets," Hammond said. "My plea would be that the commission would vote to leave the budget the way the mayor has requested."

With the sheriff maintaining his funds and the schools maintaining money previously contracted to the sheriff, there will be 19 safety officers funded through the schools and 32 resource officers funded through the sheriff.

To cover the remaining schools, the department of education says it would then need to hire about 25 additional SSOs, which would cost the schools an additional $1.9 million. Justin Robertson, chief operations officer for the schools, expressed confidence the hires could be made.

When Sharpe asked the mayor and finance team if the county could add that money to the proposed budget, Coppinger suggested waiting to see if the schools were able to fill all of the funded positions first.

According to Coppinger, the county's sales tax revenue was up $1.5 million unexpectedly this month, and he says there's no reason to believe that won't be fairly consistent, which could free up money for additional SSOs later if needed.

"If the commission is amenable to it, then down the road, if you're able to keep hiring them [SSOs], then I don't think any of us would want to get in the way of that," Coppinger said. "But I still think the jury's out, so to speak, on whether you're going to be able to continue that success in hiring them.

"There's going to be a point in time when you run up against that wall and it's going to be really hard to recruit SSOs just like it is SROs."

Coppinger said he wants security in every building.

"We just gotta figure out how to get there and do it reasonably to where it doesn't put an undue burden on the taxpayer to fund something we can't get people to do yet," he said.

Sharpe sided with Coppinger, ultimately not proposing an amendment.

"Seems like we're moving in the right direction here, and that's what I hoped would happen today," Sharpe said, encouraging the department of education to keep hiring until its positions are full and then request an amendment if needed.

Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Chattanooga, accused the county of "kicking the can" down the road on difficult issues.

The commissioners then unanimously passed the unamended budget 8-0.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at staylor@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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