‘It’s a financial burden for an agency’: Hawkins Co. Sheriff discusses toll of Summer Wells case on his office

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ROGERSVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — The almost month-long search for missing five-year-old Summer Wells involving hundreds of rescuers and agencies totaled up hours of work for those on the ground and of course financial implications.

In an interview with News Channel 11 on Friday- Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said that he hadn’t totaled out numbers yet but did expect this to take a financial toll.

“My patrol division – that’s the officers that go out and answer the calls and stuff – and my school resource officers just those two groups alone, they accumulated over 3200 hours. That’s not counting the rest of the division,” Lawson said. “It’s a financial burden for an agency.”

During the search- he says he had officers working the ground in Beech Creek but also working the regular caseload.

“We’re still answering all the same amount of calls, bringing people to jail, investigating other cases, and it just wears you out because it’s hard to give everything 100% when you’re brain-damaged, but we’ve continued on,” said Lawson. “A lot of [my officers] volunteer their time. They will get out and climb in the woods and follow up on leads and stuff and my detective division are still working all the time.”

Lawson said that he can’t allow officers to volunteer because “they’re doing a service.” He added that the search and investigation have also taken a mental, physical, and emotional toll on his department.

“A lot of my officers have small children, grandchildren. And we know what goes through our mind if that would’ve been our child or grandchild and plus us spending so much time on a Beech Creek for three weeks, but my office never stopped,” he said. “The time that they’re on duty- whether they’re in Beech Creek or they’re here, that’s time with their family too. I stress to all my employees: we have God first and family second, this job third, and sometimes it’s hard but then we got to stay focused, and it’s hard. I’m just proud of my employees. They’re all in everything. They’re here to serve.”

The costs of the search also came up during a subcommittee budget meeting with Hawkins County commissioners.

“A search of this scale and of this magnitude I felt like probably drained some resources for the rescue agencies that are volunteer and for our sheriff’s department. There are literally thousands of man-hours spent out there and it’s not over, and what that looks like for our budget,” said District Four commissioner Hannah Winegar, who brought up the concerns. “While they’re also searching for Summer Wells, there’s still all the regular police work happening and no doubt.”

The search also highlighted issues with the communications system in the county.

“It really exposed all of the weaknesses of our first responder practice, because when you’ve got a search this big and you’re putting this much energy into finding this child, any shortfalls that we have, they’re going to get exposed,” said District Five commissioner Jason Roach. “I’m in favor of our local agencies getting new DMR capable radios to put in their cars and for their handhelds and that’s going to cost money. Fortunately, we have some grant money coming from the federal government to make up that difference. We hope that some of that money will be steered that way and the commission will have a little bit of time to decide that.”

Commissioners Winegar and Roach also worry about the depleted funds and resources from other agencies including rescue squads and the volunteer-based.

“There’s probably going to have to be some changes to the way that we spend money on our sheriff’s department and the way that we designate money to these first responder agencies,” said Roach. “It’s going to cost a lot of money and the thing is, if it’s going to cost this amount of money, we just have to figure out how to resource the sheriff’s department. It’s not a matter of ‘It’s going to cost this amount of money so we can’t continue the search.’ That’s not part of the conversation at all. This conversation is more about how can we resource our first responders to do the job that we pay them to do.”

Hawkins County is heading into this fiscal year on a $2 million deficit and plans to make up the money from the reserve fund. While money can be moved around, Winegar wonders what other costs the county could have if funding had to be cut back for the rescue agencies.

“We’re going into a budget year with a $2 million deficit. Although we do have a fund balance to cover that, nobody wants to see a tax increase, but I just think that we have to take care of these organizations because what if they fold?” she said. “If these rescue organizations fold, we have to have these rescue organizations, we have to have these types of things. So if they fold, what would that look like and what would that cost the county to pay county employees to do these kinds of services?”

This upcoming year’s budget for the county will go to the full commission at the end of July.

Both Commissioner Winegar and Roach say they expect the commission to move money around as needed when the sheriff’s department and other agencies come to them with the totals from the search.

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