published Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Appeals Court says Hamilton County must give sergeants raises

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    Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond speaks to the media in this file photo.
    Staff File Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press

A Tennessee Court of Appeals decision issued Wednesday ruled Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond must equalize the pay of sergeants in the department after a grievance was filed.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the matter be sent back to the Civil Service Advisory Board. The board must instruct Hammond in writing what “necessary steps to take to eliminate the disparity” in pay for the department’s 19 sergeants.

“It is for the sheriff to determine how this goal is to be achieved, but — the grievance in this case having been sustained — the goal must be achieved,” the opinion states.

Six of the sergeants, Chris Harvey, Ricky Jones, Mark King, Mark Kimsey, Mark Williams and Jody Mays, filed a grievance because the salaries ranged from $43,867 to $49,840.

“We think it was a favorable ruling from the court of appeals,” said Hal North, an attorney with Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, who represented the sergeants. “We await further action by the sheriff to resolve this.”

Hammond said he would have to consult with legal counsel to examine how the ruling will impact funding and his ability to promote as well as award raises by merit.

“I do not want to discourage my officers from making more money. I would love to see all of my officers make more. I think all officers are underpaid, but I also have department to run on a finite budget,” Hammond said Wednesday evening, declining to comment further.

In January 2011, the board, which is a group of three civilians appointed to decide on personnel and policy matters within the sheriff’s office, ruled in favor of the sergeants.

Rather than follow the directive, the sheriff’s office appealed the decision to Hamilton County Chancery Court in March 2011. Chancellor Frank Brown issued an opinion in July 2011 ruling that the board did not have the authority to equalize salaries.

“The sheriff seems to want the best of both worlds by conceding the authority of the board to deny the grievance but not the authority to grant the grievance and to order relief,” the opinion states.

The case has now taken more than a year. The sergeants filed the appeal in August 2011 to the state court of appeals.

“To demand that employees follow the rules of the Civil Service Board, but excuse one's self from doing the same, would be the height of arrogance. The rank-and-file achieve our goals every day, despite the insultingly low, obviously disparate pay and constant cuts to our benefits, personnel shortages, and equipment and training shortages. We are doing our part and I think it is not too much to ask for the Sheriff to do his part,” said Kimsey in an email. “I am confident that Sheriff Hammond will do the right thing, as outlined and directed by his own Civil Service Board, and now, the Tennessee Court of Appeals.”

The opinion issued Wednesday afternoon states while the board is not in a position to grant raises, the court of appeals ruled the board can instruct the sheriff to do so.

“What was disheartening to the sergeants was that [the sheriff] said he would abide by whatever decision the board made. Well, he didn’t do that,” North said.

Sheriff’s officials have previously argued that budgets are tight already and if pay is equalized that it would ruin merit salary increases.

“There is little rhyme or reason to the pay scale of the individuals holding the rank of sergeant in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office,” the opinion states.

The differences in pay are the result of a variety of factors including the sheriff’s discretion. That’s in contrast to other positions such as captains and corporals all make the same pay, according to the opinion.

Last year Hammond awarded merit raises to administrators and his secretary. According to the assignment slips, the raises were not explained, but simply ordered by Hammond. Patrol deputies have not received a raise in five years.

It would cost the sheriff’s office $74,596 above its budget if all sergeants were paid at the highest sergeant’s salary.

Hammond went before the Hamilton County Commission last month asking for an additional $2.56 million for the coming fiscal year. That would result in a 8 percent increase to his $27 million budget.

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