Instead of approving a plan that would have required members to determine how to fund the positions, the Budget Committee voted 7-0 to express support for the concept and send the idea to the Rutherford County Commission for consideration this week.
Following a lengthy discussion on the matter, several commissioners said they opposed pushing for a 3-cent property tax increase to pay for the proposal without the political coverage of the full 21-member County Commission.
As part of the endorsement, Mayor Ernest Burgess agreed to include any tax increase needed to pay for the officers as a separate line item in any proposed budget so that the full cost is known during negotiations.
“This is part of a much larger puzzle,” he said, referring to the upcoming budget negotiations for the next fiscal year. “We have to look at the total outcome of this.”
Noting that no plan will ever be foolproof, Burgess cautioned against commissioners rushing to a decision without taking the time to fully understand the big picture.
“This will never solve all the possible situations and can never stop everything – not by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
The proposal is under consideration at the behest of the Rutherford County Public Safety Committee, which asked Sheriff Robert Arnold to determine how much it would cost to add officers in light of the December 2012 deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Arnold found the proposed increase in officers would cost $1.2 million, in addition to the roughly $300,000 already needed for two full-time positions at the recently completed Stewarts Creek High School.
In total, Rutherford County officials would need to spend $1.5 million in start-up costs. Those funds would be allotted to pay for the additional salaries and benefits, as well as the required training fees and equipment for each officer.
That amount would then reduce to an estimated annual cost of $583,000.
Even though it would cost roughly 1 cent to fund after the first year, Burgess said the remaining 2 cents of the tax increase is needed for other purposes – meaning the higher rate would be permanent.
“There are other needs besides this that we have not even discussed,” Burgess said, noting there are projects coming down the pike that need funding.
Commissioner Will Jordan said he is worried about how to pay for the proposal, especially given the likelihood that a property tax increase would be an unpopular option.
“There are commissioners who would vote for this next week, but they would vote no on a tax increase come the end of May,” Jordan said. “If we vote for this, we have to figure out how to pay for it.”
Jordan was not alone in his hesitation.
“I would like a majority vote by the (County Commission) on just the concept,” Commissioner Steve Sandlin said. “Everyone needs to understand that this plan could result in higher taxes.”
Several other committee members also said they were concerned about being locked into a proposal requiring additional funds without knowing whether fellow commissioners would support a tax increase or reducing the budgets of other departments.
“What we are talking about is the easiest deterrent to preventing violence,” Commissioner Doug Shafer said, adding he supports the plan even though his grandchildren do not attend Rutherford County schools.
“I support this,” he said, “but I would like to see this come up before the (County) Commission and have a roll-call vote on the concept.”
Despite their concerns, Commissioner Robert Peay Jr. motioned for a resolution that would have allowed the Sheriff’s Office to begin hiring officers by July 1, the day after the next budget becomes effective.
“I am willing to go with that 3 cents if that is what it takes,” Peay said, noting if a shooting were to occur inside a local school, his fellow commissioners would regret not agreeing with his position.
Ultimately, Shafer was the only commissioner to support his resolution.
Joyce Ealy, who serves as chair of the Budget Committee, and Commissioners Joe Frank Jernigan and Charles Baum joined with Jordan and Sandlin against the resolution.
For Gerald Brawner, whose grandchildren attend Rutherford County schools, he said a tax increase is worth it because “children are priceless,” noting he is disappointed that the commissioners delayed taking any substantive action.
“They needed to go ahead and pass it,” he said after the meeting. “How can you put a price on children? It has to be done … God forbid something happens. If something bad did happen, it would pass with no problem.”