Commissioners lukewarm to idea of sheriff as chief

Commissioners lukewarm to idea of sheriff as chief

April 1st, 2010 by Dan Whisenhunt in Politics Local

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield hopes to sell the idea of putting the county sheriff in charge of the city's police force, but the Hamilton County Commission isn't necessarily buying.

"I don't think it will ever happen," Commissioner Curtis Adams said. "I don't think the county commission would vote to let him do it. ... We want a good sheriff and a good Sheriff's Department."

Mr. Littlefield would be hard-pressed to find a commissioner who enthusiastically supports the idea, after commissioners said Wednesday they are either against the idea outright or need more information.

"I have not talked to a single person who is supportive of the sheriff taking over the city policing," said Commissioner Warren Mackey said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Littlefield was rebuked by City Council members, who overwhelmingly rejected the mayor's proposed contract to keep retiring police Chief Freeman Cooper on the job for three more years.

After the vote, the mayor said he would begin negotiations with Sheriff Jim Hammond about taking control of the city police department.

Not so fast, county commissioners said Wednesday. Any agreement for the sheriff to take over the city's police duties would have to be approved by the commission.

Commissioners said there are some issues they would need to work through before they could get on board with the mayor's proposal, and that process could take awhile.

Even Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said the mayor's plan would involve "a lot of conversation."

"I haven't really given it a whole lot of thought," he said. "This is something that's been thrown out there. There's not been a great deal of conversation about it. It's always possible. Anything is possible."

Commissioner Fred Skillern agreed that there's little support for the idea among commissioners. He said he's not opposed to the idea per se, but it must be studied. The two departments have different pay scales and retirement plans, for example.

Commissioner Richard Casavant said he is in favor of some consolidation of some government services, but the big roadblock would be the city's unionized police force and its pension plan. He said if that could be worked out, more commissioners would be receptive to the idea.

"A lot of cities in the nation are really over the barrel and one reason is the cost of their police and fire retirement plans," Dr. Casavant said. "It can sneak up on you."

Commissioner Jim Coppinger has the same problem reconciling the employee benefits of the two departments. But he didn't rule the idea out.

"I'm in favor of consolidating services that would save taxpayer dollars," he said. "If it's going to be more expensive to the taxpayers, it doesn't make much sense, but if there's an opportunity to consolidate to save taxpayer money, we should be looking to do that."

Mr. Coppinger noted that the county has absorbed other city services in the past, including the city school system, but said he is against "growing government."

A contract would need to be in place spelling out which government entity the sheriff would answer to, Mr. Mackey said.

Approving a plan to give the sheriff control of the city's police force could take "months and months," Commissioner Greg Beck said.

"I would say, 'Not so fast,'" he said.

Commissioner John Allen Brooks said the Sheriff's Office is under contract to provide services to other cities in the county, which gives the commission a blueprint to follow.

"It to me seems like (Mayor Littlefield) didn't get his way, so suddenly he throws this out," he said. "I'm not going to say 'yea' or 'nay' on it until I see a proposal."

A more likely estimate of the time it would take to put an agreement together would be years, not months, Commissioner Larry Henry said. Mr. Henry said he is open to the idea if it saves taxpayers money.

Commissioner Bill Hullander said he wouldn't vote for the mayor's proposal at this time and recommended that Mr. Littlefield do more research on his idea.

He said the residents of Chattanooga should have an opportunity to vote on giving the sheriff control of their law enforcement.

Click this link to read about the city council's next steps.