To hire - or not to hire - is still the question concerning the 19 new sheriff's deputies recommended by Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess last May.
The Public Safety Committee voted 5-2 Monday night to place the issue "for discussion" on the agenda at the county commission's next meeting Aug. 11 - but didn't make a recommendation one way or the other.
Public Safety's vote came in the wake of Sheriff Robert Arnold's trial being postponed until February 2017 on the 14-count federal felony indictment against him for allegedly profiting personally from the sale of e-cigarettes at the county jail.
When the county commission voted 19-2 to adopt the 2016-17 budget on June 27, its vote accepted the Budget & Finance Committee's removal of about $1.6 million for the 19 new sheriff's deputies that Burgess recommended and Budget & Finance had tentatively - but not finally - approved.
"Trust" issues regarding the sheriff caused Budget & Finance and the full commission to pull the funding, commissioners said - but they assured the public that not hiring the new deputies was only temporary, until Arnold's status might be settled by his trial in August.
'Trial seven months away'
But with the sheriff's trial now scheduled for next February - seven months away - the need for the seven new patrol deputies and 12 new jail deputies recommended by Burgess could melt the commission's resistance to giving Arnold control of hiring those deputies.
The $1.6 million is still available in the budget, designated as "unassigned," as Public Safety Chair Doug Shafer (District 1) pointed out Monday night.
Commissioner Pettus Read (District 8) made the motion to put the issue on the commission's agenda without making a recommendation, saying, "Since this has been before the public, I'd rather see it on the agenda for the August meeting."
Commissioner Joe Gourley (District 9) seconded the motion, saying, "The decision needs to be made by the commission."
Shafer, Turner vote 'no'
Shafer and Commissioner Brad Turner (District 10) cast the two "no" votes. Both said they believe in the committee system and thought the committee should make a recommendation one way or the other.
Read's motion followed one unsuccessfully made by Commissioner David Nipper (District 15) to recommend reinstating the funding to hire the new deputies.
Nipper - who voted "no" in June against adopting the budget because he didn't think the 19 new deputies should have been pulled from it - supported his motion Monday night by saying, "We need those 19 deputies. We needed them last month, for patrol and detention, as soon as possible." But his motion died for lack of a second.
He later also supported Read's motion to place the matter before the full commission, saying, "We need to lay our cards on the table and decide whether or not to hire the deputies - or to continue to play politics with the sheriff."
Gourley responded, "But the sheriff's playing politics with us."
'A special situation'
When Shafer first brought the issue up near the end of Monday night's meeting - which Arnold didn't attend - he said Public Safety ought to make a recommendation one way or the other, either to reinstate the 19 new deputies into the budget or not to reinstate them.
But Read and Gourley responded that while they, too, believe in the committee system, hiring the deputies is "a special situation" due to the widespread and intense controversy that the issue has generated - and the entire commission needs to revisit the issue.
Read said his phone has rung constantly about it, and he can't eat in a restaurant without being approached by citizens who want to discuss it. Even outside the county, he continually hears about it.
Burgess supports hiring
Burgess reminded Public Safety that Robert's Rules of Order don't permit prolonged discussion without a motion on the floor - and that as mayor, chairing the commission, he will have to rule "more than a minute or two" of discussion out of order unless an actual motion is made Aug. 11.
The issue also may come up at the Budget & Finance meeting scheduled Aug. 9, two days before the full commission's next meeting.
Commenting after Public Safety adjourned Monday night, Burgess reiterated his support for funding the 19 new deputies, which he previously told The Post are still needed "to properly provide for the safety of our citizens and our inmates and our staff."
'Risky texting while driving'
In other action at Public Safety, Fire Chief Larry Farley's report on the number of injury accidents so far this calendar year led to a discussion about the risks of texting while driving.
Farley said his estimate is that 50 percent of all motor vehicle accidents involve a driver distracted by social media.
Major Egon Grissom of the Sheriff's Department agreed, although he said he didn't have exact figures.
"Social media distraction of drivers is increasing," Grissom told the committee. "It's going up like crazy." He added that the Sheriff's Department was planning a campaign to catch distracted drivers starting Friday.
In-house probation 'working'
The changes made in the probation program in Rutherford County appear to be working, Probation Supervisor Trey King also reported to Public Safety.
The county decided to handle all misdemeanor probation in-house instead of renewing its contract with outside contractor PCC in March.
King reported Monday night that so far, the in-house program is $400,000 in the black - about half of what PCC had been giving back to the county.
The difference is mostly because the county is not charging probationers as much for classes they need to take and programs they need to participate in, King commented. But the objective is to get people employed in jobs and keep them from ending up back in jail, he added.
Another bit of good news came from Animal Control Director Michael Gregory. He reported that the number of animals coming into the shelter is going down at the same time the percent being adopted is going up.
A large part of the reason, Gregory said, may be the free spay and neuter program the shelter offers.
Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.