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Hard times hit town, county budgets

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Recessionary conditions continue to badger town and county budgets with the latest example of the money squeeze arising during this month's meeting of the Chapel Hill Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Sheriff Norman Dalton has started charging Chapel Hill $50 per month for access to computer-based information such as the name of the owner of a vehicle and the criminal record of someone with a driver's license.

It's the basic information an officer wants when approaching a car that's just been stopped. It's known as the 10-28 and 10-29 on the car and driver, according to standard 10-code terminology heard on police scanners.

The fee has raised a question about whether an officer might go without.

"We will not leave an officer in harm's way out there, not being able to run a tag" on the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Computer System, Town Administrator Mike Hatten said last week.

However, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen "had a long talk" about the $50 fee during their December meeting, Hatten said. Cornersville's Board of Mayor and Aldermen also faces the fee and the towns have apparently found out that charging the fee is legal.

But is it right? That was at the root of the officials' discussion when Chapel Hill's board met on Dec. 13.

"The thing we've come to realize is that if the city didn't pay for it, then it would be paid from the (county's) general fund" part of the county budget, Hatten said. "So, we look at it as double dipping, if you will."

It's a variation of the Revolutionary War battle cry, he agreed: No double taxation with only one representation. Chapel Hill residents pay county property taxes as well as property taxes to the town.

Chapel Hill's board nearly decided to have Town Attorney Todd Moore write to Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. for an opinion on the legality of the sheriff's $50 fee for access to the NCIC information.

The town's elected leaders refrained from taking that step to give Dalton time to send an emissary to the board's Jan. 10 meeting. Dalton said Katie Burk, his communications director and computer terminal agency coordinator, would be at the town's meeting at 5 p.m. that Monday.

"We have to pay the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation $8,800 a year" through a contract for access to the NCIC computer database, Dalton said.

Since Burk is his emissary to Chapel Hill, he referred some questions to her. A chief point made by his communications officer is that the TBI raised prices.

They went up in July 2009 from $1,700 every three months to $2,200 per quarter, Burk said. The TBI was not being paid what it takes to run the NCIC service.

Another point is that the sheriff and the municipalities' police chiefs sign the agreements between the county and the towns, she said. The agreements were written to last as long as those lawmen were in office. Therefore, Les Helton, the sheriff who retired Sept. 1, couldn't change prices. Dalton was elected in August. He notified towns about the $50 fee in September.

Still, it's not like the sheriff's office is paying the whole bill, Burk said. "We also get a grant ... to do fingerprinting and that does reduce the cost to $500 a quarter," but that revenue is not always available.

Meanwhile, the user agreement for Chapel Hill has been signed and, Burk said, "We have no intention of raising the fee. The contract was signed by (Chapel Hill Police Chief) Jackie King last week."

There are other factors, too.

"It's not for dispatch service," Dalton said while discussing the $600 his department is to receive from Chapel Hill annually.

Burk explains, the Sheriff's Department is "the keeper of records on stolen property. Annually, we have to go through a validation process, asking victims, 'Is it still missing?'

"It's not just running a tag. Entries (on uniform reports) are kept open on missing juveniles." Those who reported the missing child are asked if they are still gone.

Asked about town leaders' view that the fee amounts to double taxation, Dalton said, "It's not taxes. It's a user agreement.

"We run the service for them, so this year when we renewed the user agreement with the TBI we asked $50 from them and Cornesville.

"They're trying to say it's an extra tax, but it's not," Dalton said.

He agrees that the county gets much of its revenue from property taxes and that the money appropriated for the sheriff's budget comes from the county.

"But if you're going on that theory, then the city of Lewisburg could do the same thing," the sheriff said, pointing out that "Lewisburg does their own" dispatching and information gathering from NCIC computers, so the police department in the county seat is also paying an annual fee to the TBI.

Chapel Hill's leaders "are trying to say it's double dipping" Dalton said. "My stand is that it isn't.

"If we go with what they're saying, then the citizens of Lewisburg have been paying double taxes," the sheriff said.

Chapel Hill leaders "don't have to sign the user agreement with the county," he continued. "They can sign up with TBI and pay their own."

Asked about a long-standing discussion among leaders from various emergency services who advocate consolidation of dispatch services, an idea presented to the Lewisburg City Council this fall when the 911 Board requested land for an independent communications center.

"I've got some issues with that," Dalton said of about centralized dispatch. "That's a whole 'nother issue."

Asked if a centralized dispatch system would save money," the sheriff replied, "I'm not sure because I haven't looked at it all. I haven't researched that avenue, yet."

Meanwhile, Hatten concludes, access to NCIC data is something that's been available for years and, besides, "We don't have that many calls" for 10-28, 10-29 information.