SC Mayor Harris’ budget raises eyebrows at SC Sheriff’s Office

'Now is not the time to defund the sheriff’s office, eliminate positions, or hold the public safety division to a flat budget,' says SCSO Official; Harris Administration sees it differently.

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Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ proposed $1.6 billion FY2025 budget may have hit a speed bump after the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office claimed the first draft eliminates hundreds of vacant positions to balance the books during the Wednesday, May 16 Shelby County Commission Budget & Finance Committee meeting.

“The mayor’s budget creates a concern for the community’s safety and employee safety. Now is not the time to defund the sheriff’s office, eliminate positions, or hold the public safety division to a flat budget, when other departments experience growth in their area,” said SCSO Chief Administrative Officer Alicia Lindsey. 

The administration plans to defund over 400 positions within the department. 

If approved, the budget would trim the on-the-books staff to 1,715 positions. The proposal provides $203 million for salaries, including fringe benefits. 

Any government positions vacant for more than 18 months were on the chopping block. The plan was first announced by Harris during the budget retreat in January.

Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, meanwhile, is requesting $205 million for FY 2025. Maintenance to the Shelby County Jail — including failing jail door locks — make up the $2 million difference.

“All I want to do is be made whole. There are slight increases in our budget, but that’s due to maintenance of effort costs and things that go on in the jail,” said Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner.

The approach taken by administration to tackle a $60 million deficit and provide a balanced budget and provide six percent increases to most county employees. Vacancies in every department were taken into consideration.

“In this mayor’s FY2025 proposed budget, we actually supported the sheriff’s department more than Shelby County ever has, by doing two things. We were able to give all Sheriff’s Department employees six percent increases,” said Shelby County Director of Budget & Fiscal Planning Michael Thompson.

The other move was easing salary restrictions from $31 million in the FY2024 budget to $8.8 million.

“The salary restriction for the sheriff’s department in the Y2025 proposed budget is significantly less. That means they have more ability to go out and recruit and hire and support our citizens’ safety,” said Thompson.

According to the administration, the unfunded positions are still available. If needed, they can be funded by the commission, or from the department’s own budget. However, the likelihood of an influx of hundreds of new officers is unlikely.

“We left for the sheriff’s department 300 positions for them to fill each year the sheriff’s department does a training class. You cannot have enough training classes to fill 300 positions in a year. So, we are still leaving the door open for the sheriff’s department to fill 300 positions,” said Audrey Tipton, Shelby County Director of Finance & Administration. 

“We’re saying, ‘Hey, Sheriff’s Department, please go out and hire the 300 vacant positions remaining in your FY2025 budget,” she said. 

Nevertheless, the move to “unfund” positions could trigger a lawsuit from the sheriff’s department. 

A maintenance of effort required by state law forbids cutting salaries to law enforcement agencies, unless requested by the sheriff.  The Shelby County jail is also required to be fully-staffed.

“That is a proposed elimination of positions. You can say they’re just not funded. But, if you haven’t funded them, it doesn’t matter if you have a position, or not,” said Lindsey.

Legal staff for either the commission or the administration were not on hand. Questions of the likelihood, or timeline of a lawsuit, if the budget passes went unanswered.

During the meeting, a comparison was drawn with the Memphis City Council’s effort to reduce funding to the Shelby County School system in 2008. Around $51 million was cut from SCSC’s budget – roughly 5.5% of its overall budget – to lower property taxes in the city.

It also tested the school system’s maintenance of effort requirements. 

The City of Memphis was ordered to pay a $57 million settlement to SCSC in 2015. 

Along with the sheriff’s department, committee members heard from a slate of county government division heads, who presented their proposed budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.