The Marshall County Fiscal Court conducted the first reading of the fiscal year 2020-21 budget Monday, which included funding for three school resource officers overseen by the sheriff’s department.

It was, technically, the second time the fiscal court had a first reading of the current budget, a move necessitated by what the Department of Local Government called “significant changes” to the first budget proposal.

The changes were required after controversy arose from the county’s financial backing of school resource officers.

During a budget meeting last week, discussion on whether to keep the SRO program under the sheriff’s office reached a tense note.

Citing “misinformation” and unsustainable budgeting, Judge-Executive Kevin Neal said, “Whatever the court wants to do, I want to be successful, but we also have to balance how we move forward in funding this … because decisions today could affect us during (following) fiscal years.”

“There were people who thought I, personally, defunded the SRO program, which is not accurate. … It is in the budget,” Neal said. In a recent social media post he said the SRO budget line contained $375,000 and fiscal court could add $114,000 this year.

“We’ve discussed how we’re going to navigate these shortfalls, and they are real,” he said. “Moving forward if the court wants to participate, it can be done. But to not have these discussions as to how it affects our budget? As a judge-executive, I feel I wouldn’t be (properly) doing my job.”

All three county commissioners — first district Justin Lamb, second district Kevin Spraggs and third district Monti Collins — voted to keep funding for the SROs within the sheriff’s department.

Neal proposed potentially using officers who are retired and with reduced benefits.

“I put the best out there because it’s what the community wants,” Sheriff Eddie McGuire said to Neal during last week’s budget meeting. “You might not want that, but it’s what the community wants.

“(Officers) have to be retired under your proposal. You can work them without paying insurance or retirement? Then they have to be retired.” He added that he approved of raising sheriff’s department fees a certain increment if it helped provide funding for school protection.

At one point, former county commissioner Misti Drew interrupted the meeting to criticize Neal.

“Whether or not you say the SRO program won’t be cut, we won’t have the same officers serving today in our schools under your proposal,” Drew said. “There’s money that needs to be raised? Who will raise it? Give us the opportunity to raise money before you say you’re going to cut the county portion. The way you went about this is wrong and that’s not been misrepresented. Not one bit.”

Drew referenced Neal’s past decision to not sign a matching-fund Community Oriented Policing Services grant that would have funded three additional officers with a $29,000 fiscal court contribution.

“Did you know about this grant (until after its deadline)?” Drew asked all three commissioners. They all answered no. “You made that decision on your own,” she told Neal, who replied by calling the issue a distraction. “The community is telling you what they feel, they’ve spoken out,” she said.

Spraggs said he wanted the SRO program to remain status-quo.

“This community deserves nothing less than the finest for our schools … (on this) I will absolutely vote no. Our kids deserve the best we have to offer, and in my opinion it is the fiscal court’s responsibility,” Spraggs said.

A public rally took place last week at the courthouse demanding the SRO program remain intact. Speakers included Brian Cope, the father of Preston Cope, one of two students killed in the 2018 shooting at Marshall County High School.

The second reading of the budget is scheduled for June 30.

In other news, the fiscal court:

• Discussed raising Occupational Tax Administration receipts from 4.2 to 4.7%, leading to comparisons to the 2008 recession.

Spraggs called the comparison apples to oranges.

“That (2008) was also a major financial crisis that drastically impacted spending. … I’m not seeing that happen today,” he said. “Some businesses might not endure the storm, but to compare this to 2008 … people are spending money. They’re on vacations, buying things, and I think this is an entirely different scenario.”

• Heard from Health Department Director Billy Pitts who said there are 23 new area COVID-19 cases, eight of which can be traced to a recent Black Lives Matter protest at the courthouse.

“That goes to show, if possible, wear a mask and avoid prolonged contact,” Pitts said.