Sheriff Clee Atkinson

Edgecombe County Sheriff Clee Atkinson speaks Feb. 3 during the Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners meeting.

TARBORO — A PowerPoint presentation made to the Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners by Chief Deputy Gene Harrell of the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of Sheriff Clee Atkinson and titled “State of the Office of Sheriff 2019” raised eyebrows, questions and concerns.

After providing both commissioners and the estimated 100 people in attendance a logistical breakdown on the agency, Harrell headed into a more sensitive subject — money.

His first page dealt with concealed carry permits and quoted N.C. General Statute 14-425.19, which pertains to fees.

Harrell said that in 2019, the Sheriff’s Office processed 863 concealed carry applications.

By law, new applications are $80 each and renewals are $75, but GS 14-415.19 details how that money is to be distributed, reading, “ … The remaining thirty-five dollars ($35.00) of each application or renewal fee shall be used by the sheriff to pay the costs of administering this Article and for other law enforcement purposes. The county shall expend the restricted funds for these purposes only.”

Harrell pointed out that none of that money has made its way to the agency, as directed by state law.

The next morning, Atkinson reiterated that during an interview with the Telegram.

“We haven’t seen a cent of that money that the law says can only be used by this office,” Atkinson said. “We’d like to know where it is.”

Indeed, the $30,205 the legislature says must be used by the Sheriff’s Office is enough to fund a year’s pay for a detention officer at the county’s current rate of $27,065 per year with more than $3,000 left over to apply to the cost of benefits.

And it is that salary that raised both eyebrows and concerns during the presentation, as Edgecombe County ranks last in pay — trailing Halifax County by about $600, Nash by almost $3,800, Wilson by more than $6,500 and Pitt by almost $14,000 annually.

At the time of his report, Harrell noted that out of 57 detention positions, eight slots are vacant with an upcoming retirement and five pending resignations.

That means that in short order, one out of every four positions designated to keep watch over people sentenced to be locked up will be vacant.

Capt. Oliver Washington, the administrator of the detention center, told the board during the public comments portion of the meeting, “We have to do something.”

Washington said that inmates can jimmy some of the doors and release themselves from their cells.

“Are we going to be like Elizabeth City? You can pay now or pay later. What you gonna do?” he asked.

Washington was referring to the 2017 uprising at Pasquotank Correctional Institution that resulted in the deaths of four prison employees, who were working short-handed due to understaffing.

In his presentation, Harrell noted numerous maintenance issues and expressed a desire that at least one maintenance person could be added to the detention center payroll, adding, “It would be nice if they could also be a certified detention officer.”

The public safety portion accounts for 21 percent — or $12,380,323 — of the 2019-20 Edgecombe County budget. The detention center accounts for $4,014,000 of the public safety budget.

Even at that amount, public safety is the third-largest segment of the budget behind education ($13,103,314) and human services ($20,030,062).

But the Sheriff’s Office also generates revenue for the county through the detention center.

According to Harrell’s report:

  • 607 federal inmates housed generated $853,868 for the county.
  • 344 state inmates housed generated $63,120.
  • Paytel, the inmate phone service, generated $102,011.56.
  • Inmate commissary generated $31,736.77.
  • County paid $35 per hour for personnel to sit with hospitalized federal inmates while the county only pays the personnel at the county overtime rate, retaining the rest.

Harrell’s report totaled $1,050,736.33 generated by the detention center in 2019.

Pay, or the lack thereof, is at the heart of the non-equipment issues.

Harrell told commissioners that under the current county structure, a deputy with six years’ experience makes the same amount of money as one with only six days’ experience because there is no step system to account for experience or merit increases to reward advanced certifications or educational degrees.

“Out of the last (Basic Law Enforcement) class at (Edgecombe Community College), I had two (graduates) ready to come, but I lost them to Nash County.”

Another issue that could hold serious legal implications at both the state and federal level is the county’s practice of requiring timesheets every 28 days.

“For the past 11 years, our personnel have been turning in 13 time sheets a year, but only getting paid 12 times,” Harrell explained. “For a five-day deputy, that means they are working 140 hours without compensation and for a patrol deputy, it’s 123 hours without compensation.”

Harrell noted that the command staff has been talking with the payroll department to get the situation corrected, but indicated that progress has been slow.

It is not hard to understand this amounts to a large amount of money and, were it not for the commitment and dedication of the officers involved, could prove extremely costly to the county should it wind up in the legal system.

“My officers want to go on trips and do things and provide for their families, but they can’t,” Atkinson told the Telegram. “I want what’s right for them. It’s not fair and it’s not right.”

Harrell noted that a sergeant with 18 years’ experience supervising four with the Tarboro Police Department made $5,000 more per year than a 27-year captain supervising more than 40 at the Sheriff’s Office.

Based on 2018 data, Edgecombe County ranked 11th out of 11 agencies in regard to starting pay for law enforcement personnel at $30,488 annually.

That is nearly $8,000 less than Rocky Mount, $4,800 less than Tarboro and even less than Battleboro, Pinetops and Whitakers.

“I need your help,” Atkinson told commissioners. “We’re fighting every day to keep quality staff in Edgecombe County and my job is to protect you.”

Harrell’s presentation detailed the duties of the agency, including the service of civil papers, courtroom duties, transporting both inmates and mental patients, overseeing the 911 Communications Center, monitoring the county’s 222 registered sex offenders, overseeing the county animal shelter and more.

“I appreciate what you do,” Atkinson told commissioners. “I get it. I really do get it and I’m not here to go back and forth, but we gotta have some relief.”