Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway said Thursday that the Jefferson County Commission's freezing of 30% of the sheriff's office budget was dangerous.

However, commissioners are challenging that claim.

"I acknowledge the need for fiscal responsibility and prudent budget management, but it is crucial to strike a balance between responsible fiscal stewardship and the safety of our community members," Pettway said.

The Jefferson County Commission said the requested freeze would only impact a percentage of vacant positions countywide.

"As has been well documented throughout multiple industries, including local government, filling positions is challenging," Helen Hays, director of public information for the county, said. "Tying up public funds by budgeting for positions that you are unlikely to fill within a fiscal year prevents us from using those funds to instead address operational or capital needs. The Jefferson County Commission believes that being realistic about the current labor market conditions and shifting these funds to work for our residents instead of leaving them idle is the most responsible decision."

In a press release, the sheriff's office said the budget freeze would mean the sheriff's office may not be able to protect the public due to reduced staffing, decline in employee morale and retention, delayed equipment upgrades, training and community outreach.

Pettway said the budget freeze would likely lead to a reduction in deputies.

According to deputies who have spoken to 1819 News, a decline in morale and retention has impacted public safety for over a year.

Deputy Clint Bowden said last year that someone would eventually get hurt due to staff shortages. Just last month, Bowden and another deputy were injured when Bowden responded to an incident not in his area. He said he had to respond to the area because of a deputy shortage.

Also, last year, deputy Cody Christeson told 1819 News that if you're white, you have a big problem within the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

Another deputy filed a racial discrimination lawsuit last year claiming he was punished for an infraction, but a black employee who did the same thing did not get punished. The attorney for that employee said what appears to be racial discrimination under Pettway's leadership was nothing new. He said he wasn't sure if the issue was racism or favoritism, but to white employees, it seems racist, and the sheriff's office isn't doing anything to improve the optics.

"They're doing nothing about it," Morro said. "They're just protecting their friends … I think the sheriff is just incompetent, and the people who are working for him are incompetent."

Jefferson County Commissioner Jimmie Stephens told 1819 News provided employment numbers and shortages since Pettway came into office. The 2020 numbers were not available.

In 2018, the sheriff's office had 686 filled positions and 38 vacancies.

In 2019, the sheriff's office had 667 filled positions and 57 vacancies.

In 2021, the sheriff's office had 665 filled positions and 54 vacancies.

In 2022, the sheriff's office had 647 filled positions and 70 vacancies.

When the budget was being considered, Hays said the sheriff's office had 123 vacancies, "a number that steadily increased over the last several years to its current level."

She said the department would have to fill 86 positions to meet the threshold for a freeze.

Stephens said he had heard from deputies with concerns.

"This has no impact on operational expenses such as equipment, training, and outreach," Hays added.

Hays said the commission supports public safety and even gave a 10% pay increase to sheriff's deputies this year and a 4.7% increase to the overall budget.

"The Commission also allocated $3.5 million to fund renovation of the Sheriff’s Barracks for the training academy, in addition to the special $1.5 million allocation at the end of FY2023 for a total additional investment of $5 million dollars," she said. "We hope this is simply a misunderstanding."

Still, Pettway says his concern with the budget freeze is a potential increase in crime. He claims his administration has been able to "effectively reduce violent crime in Jefferson County by double digits in many areas." This decrease was reported from years 2021 to 2022. According to the Jefferson County Coroner's Office, homicides have increased countywide since 2019.

Pettway also said his office provides transparent communication with the public.

The sheriff's office has not responded to any media inquiries by 1819 News in the past year, including an interview with the sheriff about the budget freeze.

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