Sheriff: I would never do anything illegal

Published 12:35 am Saturday, November 13, 2021

BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR STAFF
ivan.sanders@elizabethton.com

Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said this week he has “yet to receive the invitation” to meet with the Carter County Financial Management Committee, but he has answers for the questions members raised publicly.

The committee members, who met Nov. 1, raised questions about Lunceford’s management of the department, specifically as relates to pay raises and the signing of a letter of agreement with the county.

Lunceford said Thursday that he has “yet to receive the invitation and first (I) heard of it was by reading the Star.”

“I would never or have I ever done anything illegal,” Lunceford said. “I won’t do it. I only do what the state law authorizes me to do. The authorities that I have are all laid out in state law. I do not violate nor have I violated any state laws.”

Among questions raised by the committee members is the signing of a letter of agreement between the county and sheriff’s department. That letter would include among other things a detailed list of employees and salaries.

According to Lunceford, the confusion comes from the interpretation of state code, specifically TCA Code 8-10-101.

“What this statute says that every year that every elected officeholder in this county or in the state can — if they want — sign a letter of agreement with the mayor,” Lunceford said. “No sheriff has ever signed a letter of agreement. I couldn’t find one.

“I haven’t signed one since I have been sheriff, but for some reason at this time it’s relevant and I don’t know why. I could speculate, but I won’t.”

Lunceford said the statute provides that the sheriff or other county officials “may sign a letter of agreement with the mayor if he or she agrees with the number of assistants/deputies and the associated salaries they are being paid. I don’t agree with what we are paying our county employees in general, or the Sheriff’s Office in particular, therefore I haven’t signed a ‘Letter of Agreement.'”

Lunceford shared the statute and a supporting letter from county attorney Josh Hardin which stated in part:

“The statutory scheme set forth in TCA 8-20-101 et seq. is clearly intended as a mechanism for the Sheriff or other county officials to institute litigation against the county to increase the number of deputies/assistants needed in their respective offices and/or the related salaries expenses to operate said offices. A reading of the plain language of the statute indicates there is no requirement for the Sheriff or other officials to file anything if he or she agrees with the number of deputies/assistants and associated salaries/expenses as budgeted by the county.”

Lunceford said disagreement stems from the word “may” in the statute, adding he had addressed it with the comptroller’s office previously when the lack of agreement was raised as an audit finding.

“They went forth with the finding and even after that, they told me even though (they) still feel that every county official has to sign a Letter of Agreement or file a lawsuit,” Lunceford said. “That is not what the state law says and I operate upon what the state law says and not upon someone’s opinion because we all have opinions.

“If we get to the point where we are paying the people that work for me a wage where they can support their families, I will sign a Letter of Agreement, but that’s not the case right now.”

Lunceford said his department is paid on average 25 percent less due to inflation from the time he arrived, and he is 17 jailers shy of the required 45 jailers. Those numbers put the department “at a critical level,” Lunceford said, adding eventually citizens and county leaders will have to decide either to pay for the services or eliminate them. “We are not a business that operates for profit,” he said. “We provide services and to provide services it takes funding.”

Commissioners also said they wanted documentation showing Lunceford administered a 4 percent pay raise in July to all employees, as dictated by the commission.

“None of my employees got a 1 percent raise and none of my employees got a 6 percent raise,” Lunceford said. “Everybody at the sheriff’s department got a 4 percent raise because that is what the county commission wanted. I advocated for 15 percent. Everybody got a 4 percent raise and that information is available to anyone including county commissioners at the finance department.”

Lunceford said he originally did not give the raise to part-time employees, who “work at the pleasure of the office holder” and are not entitled to full-time benefits.

“I pay them $13 per hour which is good money for part-time employees in Carter County,” Lunceford said. “It’s more than my full-time employees make. I have given them two raises since I have been sheriff to get them to $13.”

Lunceford said that after speaking with two county commissioners who emphasized they wanted everyone to get the raise, the part-time employee pay was increased to $13.52 per hour.

Another pay raise issue raised by the finance committee involved a one-time allocation to employees, which was misconstrued as a pay raise given then revoked, Lunceford said.

Lunceford said he was following the advice of then-Finance Director Brad Burke in dividing more than $150,000 in unspent payroll funds among employees. He said the budget surplus was available because the jail was understaffed by 15 to 25 employees. The money was paid in a one-time, one paycheck adjusted raise as advised by Burke, Lunceford said.

“My employees, who are underpaid, have worked tremendously hard and sacrificed a lot, and I am having to force overtime because we have to maintain that jail,” Lunceford stated. “So, I wanted to give that money to the employees by splitting it up equally. I didn’t want to give it in a bonus form because it is taxed at a much higher rate.

“He (Burke) suggested to just give them a one-time raise. I did that and everybody understood that. The rest of the officeholders do this but they have only got two or three thousand dollars left over because they have fewer employees. But it was a big issue when I did it. But that was all it was. They knew that and no one objected. But once again, this was for full-time employees.”

Lunceford added that in hindsight if he had known the process would be controversial, he would have given the funds as a bonus.