By Steve Hunley

There are a great many hard-working deputies in the Knox County Sheriff’s Department. Yet the recent controversy between the Knox County Pension Board and Knox County Law Director Richard “Bud” Armstrong illustrates an arrogant sense of entitlement and privilege. Evidently seven deputies have been allowed by the pension board to retire at 85% – 95% of full pay, when the Knox County charter caps the limit at 75%. The cap was instituted by the very same people who pay for it: the taxpayers of Knox County.

Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones sought to interfere after Law Director Bud Armstrong asked for a suit to be filed  on behalf of the taxpayers. Armstrong only took this last resort after several attempts to caution the pension board there was no basis in the law to do what they were doing. The pension board blithely ignored the law director’s advice and went on its merry way and did as it pleased. The big question now is how many other public employees have been accorded pension rights and pay beyond what the charter allows. Evidently it is more than these seven because the taxpayers have already had to come up with at least $400,000 to cover the shortfall to keep the pension fund actuarially sound.

Once Armstrong asked for the suit to be filed on behalf of the taxpayers, Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones and county Mayor Tim Burchett dropped a last-minute resolution on the county commission permitting seven deputies to have their lawyers paid for by the taxpayers in the afore mentioned lawsuit, despite the fact that they are no longer county employees. With Commissioner Dave Wright on vacation and absent from the meeting, the commissioners deadlocked 5-5 and the resolution failed. Still, it is astonishing that five members of the county commission, stewards of the taxpayers’ money, would vote to open the county’s treasury for a double raid, paying for legal counsel and unfunded pension benefits. Brad Anders, Michele Carringer, Hugh Nystrom, Randy Smith and Charles Busler all voted for the resolution. Carson Dailey, Evelyn Gill, Bob Thomas, Ed Brantley and John Schoonmaker all voted to support the taxpayers and uphold the Knox County charter.

Sheriff Jones was highly upset he didn’t get his way and took to attacking Armstrong and the five commissioners he could not control. Jones doubled down when he made the issue political urging the community to “back the blue.” Jones went even further over the line and strongly hinted that deputies should back Brad Anders for the Republican nomination for county mayor over Bob Thomas or Glenn Jacobs simply because Anders, a city cop, had supported the position taken by the sheriff. The sheriff also crossed another line when he used his department’s official website to attack Armstrong and encourage support for Anders. Frankly, Sheriff Jones was wrong on all counts because the issue didn’t come down to one of supporting deputies or not. The issue came down to either following the charter, the county’s constitution, or not. The voters approved special pensions for deputies still with a 75% of salary cap, some years ago and taxpayers contribute two and a half times the amount to the pensions of deputies than they do any other class of county employee. It was the taxpayers who had to come up with approximately $60 million to fund those pensions and the voters never approved going beyond that standard, nor should they.

The support of Tim Burchett and Brad Anders was for one simple reason: to curry favor with a special class of public employee. Or at least that was the idea as they are currently running for various offices. Bud Armstrong and five members of the county commission had the guts to stand by the taxpayers and the county charter. I do not and would never imply that he vast majority of Knox County deputies are greedy; in fact, I think the great majority are hard working and satisfied with their current benefits and pensions. Unfortunately, the leadership at the Knox County Sheriff’s Department refuses to abide by the charter and has a disturbing attitude that they can do whatever they please, simply because that is the way they want things to be.

Since he became Knox County’s law director, Bud Armstrong has shown no favor for any particular special interest. Armstrong has repeatedly demonstrated he is fearless, incorruptible and determined to refuse to allow the trust of the taxpayers to be violated by anyone. Armstrong and the five commissioners who supported the Knox County charter deserve the praise and appreciation of every taxpayer who works for a living. Despite what Sheriff Jones might have you believe, this isn’t about mindlessly “backing the blue,” it’s about abiding by the charter and good government.

Once this excessive pension door is opened, Knox County taxpayers could become liable for even more money, perhaps necessitating finding as much as $90 million more dollars to pour into pensions for deputies. We all need to keep in mind that Knox County is approximately $750 million in debt as it is. What has happened is an abuse of power, an abuse of the trust of the taxpayers, and an egregious defiance of the Knox County charter. Fortunately for the people of Knox County, Bud Armstrong and five members of the county commission stood with “we the people.” They were all that was standing between us and the raid on the county’s treasury. Thank goodness some of our public officials believe in representing the people who elected them and abiding by the Knox County charter.