Law Enforcement Personnel Board votes against suspending education incentives

A room full of law enforcement officers erupted into applause when Shelby County Law Enforcement Personnel Board Chairman Randy Donaldson announced his vote against a measure some said would “attack” education incentives and step raises built into deputies’ salaries.

Donaldson’s vote broke the board members’ two-way tie, which occurred after a public hearing filled with impassioned arguments from both sides of the issue.

The proposed rule suggested suspending educational incentives and step raises during times of economic downturn.

“Education, in our line of work, is of vital importance,” said deputy Michael Denver McCool in a letter to the personnel board.

McCool added that he moved to Shelby County from Knoxville, Tenn., because of both the high value the sheriff’s department here placed on education and professionalism.

When County Commissioner Corley Ellis took the floor, he acknowledged his unpopular viewpoint in the room filled with sheriff’s deputies.

“I know I’m the least popular person here and everyone behind me has a gun,” he said. “Our law enforcement here is second to none and I have lots of friends in the department, but we’ve had 33 positions eliminated countywide. We have cut to the bone, and public safety is the last place we want to cut back.”

Ellis also said, however, something must be done.

“When we’re eliminating positions and sending people home, it’s not a good time to be giving raises, in my opinion,” he said.

Several deputies expressed concern about the county’s discussion of building additional trails between schools and other miscellaneous construction projects, and wondered where the money for those projects was coming from.

“That money is earmarked,” Ellis said. “We can’t, by law, spend it on anything else. The sheriff’s department is funded by the county’s general fund, and we’ve cut $6 million from that. Forty percent of the general fund goes toward the sheriff’s department and it hasn’t been cut at all.”

Chief Deputy John Samaniego said he felt the issue was more about allowing Sheriff Chris Curry to do his job.

“The board gave us those incentives and it’s their right to take them away,” he said. “But we have a responsible sheriff, and if he saw a need to take away step raises, he would.”

After the vote, most deputies left the building with huge smiles on their faces.

“I think tonight was proof that the democratic process works,” Donaldson said.