Updated: 9:15 a.m. with comments from St. Louis County Police Association
St. Louis County law enforcement officials looking to boost pay for their officers have launched a court fight over a $10 fee, pitting them against comrades in other counties.
The fee is assessed across Missouri for civil court duties by deputies, such as serving a summons or enforcing evictions. That fee has helped augment the salaries of sheriff’s departments across the state for the past year.
St. Louis County is home to the largest civil court docket in the state, and is where the biggest chunk of the $15 million fund, known as the Deputy Sheriff Salary Supplementation Fund, is generated. The county, however, has not been able to tap into the fund.
When St. Louis County Chief Tim Fitch applied last year to boost the salaries of his officers by $100 a month, the board that administers the program rejected the request, saying he ran a police department — not a sheriff’s department.
The board includes some of Fitch’s counterparts, including St. Charles County Sheriff Tom Neer and Jefferson County Sheriff Oliver “Glenn” Boyer. The Department of Public Safety, which distributes the money, is led by Jerry Lee, Fitch’s former police chief in St. Louis County.
Now, Fitch, along with his counterparts from the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department and Department of Justices Services, is suing the board — along with the governor — alleging that the rejection of the application is “unlawful, unreasonable, arbitrary and involves an abuse of discretion.”
“This is the right thing to do for our people, and I don’t care who’s mad about it,” Fitch said about the lawsuit, filed three weeks ago. “We contribute about $1.3 million a year to this fund and we don’t get a dime of it. Every one else can get their salary supplemented because of it, and we can’t.”
Neer directed questions to Boyer, who declined to comment based on his attorney’s advice. A spokesman for Lee also declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.
SECOND TIME AROUND
This is the second time the fund has prompted a lawsuit since state legislators created it in 2008. The goal was to boost the annual salary of every sheriff’s deputy in the state to at least $28,000. Sheriff’s departments whose deputies already made $28,000 could apply to boost salaries by up to $100 a month.
But St. Louis County and St. Charles County executives filed suit in December 2008, saying the state-mandated fee amounted to a tax on local governments, violating the state constitution, and that money collected in their jurisdictions would essentially be used to subsidize police in other counties.
In October 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected their arguments.
The state tapped the Missouri Sheriff Methamphetamine Relief Taskforce, or MoSMART, to determine which departments should get the fee money. MoSMART already oversees the distribution of grant money to crack down on meth.
Along with Boyer and Neer, the MoSMART board includes Platte County Sheriff Richard Anderson, Morgan County Sheriff Jim Petty and Chariton County Sheriff Chris Hughes.
They began distributing money in January 2012. Since then, roughly 2,200 deputies statewide have seen their salaries increase. About 500 of them have seen their salaries reach $28,000. And about 1,700 deputies have seen monthly increases of up to $100 each month, according to the Department of Public Safety.
St. Louis County this year provided its police officers with their first pay raise — about 2.5 percent — since 2008. But Fitch notes that his officers’ starting salaries are now about $41,000, compared to the $46,000 starting salary for St. Charles County deputies.
“How are they eligible for (the state fund) and we’re not?” Fitch asked.
The St. Louis County Police Association President Det. Gabe Crocker noted that St. Charles County voters recently approved a change to the county charter that will change their sheriff's department to a county police department and questions how that will affect St. Charles County Deputies who currently receive the supplement.
"Sheriff Neer who sits on the MoSmart Board will have a tough decision to make when his agency converts to police department," said Crocker, adding that his organization, which represents hundreds of county officers, is working to join the lawsuit.
All of the MoSMART board members’ departments receive money from the fund. Boyer, who is president of the board, secured a $100 monthly raise for his deputies. Neer’s deputies get $75 a month.
The balance of the fund as of Oct. 31, 2012, was about $15.5 million, and $5.2 million of it came from St. Louis County from February 2011 to October 2012, according to the lawsuit.
The largest recipient has been the St. Louis City Sheriff’s Department, at $260,000, followed by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, at $215,000.
In April 2012, Fitch applied to boost the monthly salaries of his 840 officers by $100 each. The MoSMART board rejected the request, saying it had not been submitted by a sheriff’s office, as its rules stipulate.
St. Louis County was among five departments that were denied grants. Incorrect or missing signatures were to blame in the other denials, according to the Department of Public Safety.
St. Louis and St. Louis County have separate sheriff and police departments, unlike many other counties in which the sheriff oversees all policing.
In the city, the sheriff’s department has arrest powers, but St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies do not. The county formed the police department in 1955 and stripped all of the law enforcement powers from the sheriff’s department. Today, the deputies handle such duties as serving civil paperwork and acting as bailiffs in courtrooms.
And the county charter deems the police chief as the actual sheriff of St. Louis County — even though the title belongs to someone else.
Also, in most other counties, the sheriff’s department operates the jail. In St. Louis County, the Department of Justice Services employs about 230 corrections officers to oversee the jail, which is why that department also has joined the lawsuit.
Court Administrator Paul Fox appoints and oversees the county sheriff, Jim Buckles. Buckles and Fox believe the sheriff’s department’s 100 employees should be eligible for the state money.
“It’s simply not fair that we send the lion’s share of this money to state and they use it for outstate raises, and we get no benefit from it,” Fox said.
Fitch said his officers try to arrest anywhere from 10 to 15 people every week for violations that have the attached $10 fee.
“I’m just trying to make sure our officers are treated fairly and like the other officers in the state, and clearly we’re being treated differently,” Fitch said. “Every one of our officers performs these same duties, just like any other deputy in the state.”