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Sheriff Mark Napier says he’s been working to develop a merit-based pay plan for deputies.

Four sheriff’s deputies have filed a $500,000 claim with the county, asking for money they say was promised to them when they were hired under what is now a defunct pay-increase program.

Pima County Sheriff’s Department employees Therese Deschenes, Ricardo Garcia, John Henson and Theodore Hartenstein are each asking for different sums of money, ranging from $113,000 to $150,000, based on how long they were employed, according to claim, which is filed as a precursor to a lawsuit.

The Dec. 21 claim names Sheriff Mark Napier, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and the Board of Supervisors as defendants.

For years, the Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy Association has been asking supervisors to make good on annual pay increases that were offered under the Step Program, which began in the late 1990s, according to Arizona Daily Star archives.

The Step Program was advertised in publications throughout the state, and upon being hired by the Sheriff’s Department deputies were given documents that outlined the specified annual increases — step pay —that were to be expected within the first few years of employment, the claim says.

In 2007, the department drafted a memo that provided a table explaining compensation under the Step Program, but with the economic crash of 2008 it agreed with the county to forgo step increases “for a brief time, with the express understanding that Pima County would make up for the accrued Step Program deficits when the economy recovered,” according to the claim.

That never happened, and Step Program compensation continued to go unpaid and accrue, the claim said.

As recently as October, Pima County still provided for the Step Program under its “basic pay plan,” even though the increases hadn’t been paid in a decade, the claim said.

On Dec. 11, Napier issued a memo announcing the departure of bureau chief Deanna Johnson from the department, and saying that for cost-saving purposes, her position would remain temporarily unfilled.

Napier also discussed compensation in the memo, saying that it became clear to him that Huckelberry would not support the continued use of the Step Program or the deputies’ request for payouts to catch everyone up on the pay scale, a program described as “decompression.”

The memo goes on to say that Huckelberry had agreed to support a “merit-based approach to compensation,” which the department intends to implement July 1. The new merit-based pay structure would place “additional requirements on line-level personnel. We are asking them to increase competencies and enhance performances to obtain increases in compensation,” states the sheriff’s memo, which was included in the claim.

The deputies’ attorney, Stephen Portell, wrote in the claim that Napier’s proposed compensation system, which would provide increases based on employees passing “military-style tests,” is illegal. “The deputies, their colleagues and the associations feel betrayed by the sheriff, who has now broken the most vital of his many campaign promises,” the claim said.

By eliminating the Step Program and implementing the new pay plan, the deputies who filed the claim will lose all their accrued Step compensation and will have underfunded retirement benefits, according to the claim. The claim goes on to say the Step Program was a deciding factor in each of the four deputies deciding to work for Pima County.

“Pima County made a promise to the deputies. The deputies delivered ... year after year,” the claim says. “Pima County decided to repudiate its agreement with the deputies — breaking its promise.”

The dollar amounts from the claim are based on the deputies’ best estimates of unpaid wages that have accrued over the course of their careers, the claim says.

Napier told the Star that it was his belief the Step Program was ended prior to his becoming sheriff last January.

“My memo of Dec. 11 simply acknowledged that fact,” he said. “Since I was not sheriff at the time, I can’t comment upon and do not have knowledge of the reasons or exact circumstances of the abandonment of the Step Program by the county.”

Napier said he’s been working “diligently” with county administration to develop the merit-based alternative that “ensures a predictable pathway through better defined and enhanced compensation ranges.”

The new plan will make compensation more predictable, Napier said, adding that some details still need to be refined.

Under state law, the county has 60 days to respond to the claim before it can be pursued in court.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlinschmidt

I'm a government watchdog reporter, covering public safety policy and family issues.