After Burke County Sheriff Steve Whisenant told commissioners on Tuesday he doesn’t think he can operate a new jail with the number of positions allocated in the proposed 2019-20 county budget, officials seem to have come to an agreement on an appropriate number.

Early in the budget season, Whisenant requested 41 new positions to staff the jail.

The proposed budget included 25 positions to staff the new 256-bed jail on Government Drive in Morganton. With the 25 and an additional 16 current positions , it would give Whisenant 41 positions at the new jail.

Whisenant told commissioners on Tuesday he believes that’s not adequate. He was requesting 19 more positions for the new jail.

He told commissioners if they can’t come to some agreement on the staffing, he wants the county to hire a staffing consultant to determine an adequate number of positions. He also wants the county attorney to give an opinion on any liability the county could incur because of what he believes would be inadequate staffing.

Carswell said during the Tuesday budget meeting that he, Vice Chairman Scott Mulwee, County Manager Bryan Steen, Whisenant, jail administrators and county finance staff will meet to work out the jail staffing before a final budget is approved later this month.

The group met on Thursday and agreed to propose an additional 13 positions in the 2019-20 budget, Carswell said. Local governments are required to have adopted a fiscal budget for 2019-20 by July 1.

Carswell said the additional 13 positions would give Whisenant 54 positions for the jail, with 50 assigned to the new jail and four positions assigned for transporting inmates, two of which would be sworn officers and two detention officers.

Carswell said when the proposed budget was created there were some new rules about the operation of jails in the state of which county government officials were not aware.

One of the new rules is checking jail pods and officers physically going to each cell and note what each inmate is doing during the check, Carswell said. He said numerous rules for running a jail have come from the state Department of Health and Human Services recently.

During the Tuesday meeting, Whisenant argued that he needs additional people to staff the new jail but also said he is having a hard time finding qualified people to fill current vacancies.

But finding qualified people for police officers is something many governments are facing across the country. And some are making changes to try to attract people to the job.

The city of Hickory Police Department recently changed a policy to allow male officers to have well-groomed beards — beards weren’t allowed previously — and raised the yearly starting salary by $4,000, offering a little more than $40,000, according to a May 31 Hickory Daily Record story.

In 2017, commissioners approved sworn law enforcement officers to receive a 4 percent increase of pay and approved sworn law enforcement certification pay increase of 1.5 percent to an officer’s base pay.

In July 2017, the minimum and maximum salary ranges for Burke detention officers were shifted up 2.5 percent. The entire Burke pay plan also was increased 1.5 percent at the time, according to a previous News Herald story.

In March, commissioners agreed for the sworn officer pay plan to be increased 12 percent to market average, according to a previous News Herald story.

A current job opening notice on Burke County’s website for a sheriff’s deputy lists a starting pay of $31,905.38 a year and a job opening notice for a detention officer lists a starting yearly salary of $29,641.30.

Carswell said the proposal is to start hiring for the new jail positions on July 1 and place them on inactive status.

To try to attract folks to work at the jail, the county will have to reach out to professionals to do some aggressive recruitment program, Carswell said. He said county officials will speak to potential candidates through YouTube and possibly use newspapers, radio and trade publications.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Jeff Brittain told Whisenant that given the size of the typical jail population, the new jail won’t be operating at capacity the first day it opens. Brittain also said the architect for the new jail considered the staffing needed and County Manager Bryan Steen took that into account when he proposed the 25 new positions.

After the new jail opens, the downtown jail would, at that point, be used as a holding facility for inmates who have a court case at the courthouse on a particular day.

A public hearing on Burke County’s proposed 2019-20 budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 18 in the commissioners’ meeting room of Burke Services Building, located at 110 N. Green St., Morganton. Commissioners are expected to adopt a budget during the meeting after the public hearing.

Sharon McBrayer is a staff writer and can be reached at or at 828-432-8946.

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