School resource officers are a welcome presence in county schools, and providing funds to underwrite their presence there represents a considerable investment of taxpayers' money. That's why Hamilton County commissioners approved Sheriff Jim Hammond's budget request in June to fund 23 individually named county SROs for the current school year.
So far, the sheriff has not used all that money as intended. He has assigned 16 officers to individual schools, plus two officers to supervise them. Several funded positions -- at Howard School, Washington Alternative School, East Ridge Middle School and Ooltewah Middle School --remain vacant. Howard and Washington Alternative School are among the schools that most need SRO personnel because of their high levels of troubling incidents.
Hammond says he needs the officers who should be assigned to the schools for patrol and other duties. That's beside the point.
County commissioners specifically approved a budget that funds SROs at specific schools. By using the funds assigned to that purpose to fund other department operations, Hammond is reneging on his commitment and undermining his credibility as a responsible administrator.
Hammond doesn't seem to care. "I know that I get that [the SRO officers for certain schools] approved by them, but where I put them is up to the sheriff," Hammond says.
His blasé view of his flip-flop is discouraging. Students, teachers, administrators and the community benefit from the SRO program. Even the most tight-fisted of elected officials and the most parsimonious taxpayers would begrudge his capricious decision to shift the funds he got for SRO positions to other departments.
Department heads within county government -- the sheriff included -- operate within a useful framework in which budget requests are approved by the commissioners who represent voters in various county districts. It's not a perfect system, but it is a manageable one that usually prevents fiscal impropriety. Hammond has turned the system on its ear -- and commissioners rightly resent it.
Commissioner Fred Skillern, put it succinctly and correctly. "His [Hammond's] idea of a budget is give me the money and I'll play with it any way it want to." It's not the first time Hammond has played lose with the county's money. Earlier this year, he tangled with the commission about a departmental budget deficit and his refusal to eliminate it. Hammond's arrogant assumption that he can do what he wants with county money is an affront to taxpayers and a threat to good governance.
His failure to provide SROs is unacceptable, and especially so regarding schools with histories of incidents that have required the presence of law enforcement personnel to provide a safe environment for students and teachers. County commissioners, community leaders, parents, teachers and school administrators should force Hammond to reverse his unilateral decision about SROs.
Hammond, as he says, might not be legally required to provide the SROs, but he has a ethical obligation and responsibility -- based on his approved budget request -- to do so. His refusal to honor that obligation says a lot -- none of it good -- about his political arrogance.