Supervisors, Sheriff at odds over vehicle policy

Published 4:18 am Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Board wants employees only in cars and trucks; Deputies continue school drop offs

Sheriff’s Office deputies’ use of county-owned vehicles for personal use was a hot topic at Monday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors, with the result being the same as previous discussions.

The supervisors agreed to keep the board policy of restricting use of vehicles to official business only, and limit travel outside Panola County to 20 miles. Sheriff Shane Phelps maintains that other counties allow deputies to use vehicles for school drop offs and pick ups, and permit employees  who live outside their county to take their service vehicles home.

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Phelps was not at the beginning of Monday’s meeting and not present for the discussion. Later in the day he contacted the newspaper to reiterate his stance that supervisors have no business with the day-to-day operations of the Sheriff’s Office, and that a strict rule against any family members in vehicles, or an inside Panola only policy, would greatly reduce his ability to find experienced officers to fill the ranks. 

Those small perks and conveniences for officers help tremendously, Phelps said, in officer recruitment and retention, especially when Panola County’s compensation is significantly lower than that in Lafayette and DeSoto Counties where there is also a shortage of law enforcement personnel.

Monday’s discussion was started, again, by Supervisor Ear Burdette, who told board members his concern is for potential liability if wrecks happen while people other than officers are in a county owned vehicle.

Burdette brought up the vehicle policy when supervisors were presented with a renewal policy from insurance agents Perrin Caldwell and Chris Smith on behalf of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors Insurance Trust.

“The MASIT program has worked out well for the county,” Smith said. “They provide excellent coverage and we can all work well with them.” Before the statewide supervisors association formed the insurance trust, each county board struggled with ever-increasing premiums and high deductibles.

Panola County has benefited greatly with the MASIT program, and county officials are vigilant in maintaining close ties with the insurance trust, not wanting to return to the private insurance market to solicit quotes for county property coverage, which often quoted for hundreds of thousands more with deductibles routinely 50-80 percent higher than MASIT.

Supervisors were told the premium for the new property and casualty coverage contract, which begins May 1, will be seven percent higher than the current year. Smith said the increase is attributable, mostly, to an increase of property coverage from $49 million to $78 million due to construction at the jail and The Concourse project in Batesville.

Burdette, who said he witnessed a deputy putting six children into his service vehicle, questioned Smith directly asking how the personal use of department vehicles could affect the county’s coverage.

“Personal use of departmental vehicles-, that hasn’t changed,” Smith said. “The insurance company is not going to tell you that you can’t use the vehicles for personal use. What happens, though, is that having family members or guests in the vehicle with you is a risk and exposure which obviously can increase your costs.”

County Attorney Gaines Baker assured Burdette that while the practice might lead to negative consequences, the county was not in imminent liability danger in case of an accident.

“Insurance is going to follow the vehicle, we are not going to be without coverage, but it increases our exposure, that’s what it does,” Baker said. “

“If we are running an Uber or taxi with these Sheriff’s Office vehicles, is the insurance going to pay for that, or is it going to fall back on the taxpayers when something happens?” Burdette asked Baker.

“It’s going to pay up to the limits because it follows the vehicle, and then they may turn around and drop us immediately,” Baker replied. “If we demonstrate a pattern that we are using those for purposes other than what the rates were quoted for they are going to reconsider the rates or they are going to drop us. It’s just a business decision.”

Supervisor Chad Weaver said he was concerned about exposure as well, saying a major rate increase in any of the county’s insurance policies would further reduce supervisors ability to keep up current services and continue ongoing repairs.

“We addressed this the last time and the answer was that the Sheriff chose to let his men transport their children to school whether we agree to it or not,” Weaver said. “It is my understanding that the only strong arm we have to that would be to grab the purse strings to the budget and reduce the number of vehicles that we have.”

Board President Cole Flint stopped the discussion after five minutes, telling fellow supervisors that the impasse with the Sheriff’s Office had no bearing on the proposed contract, and he believed the proposed increase was justified because of the increased coverage.

“We have some policy issues that we need to take care of, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this proposal that we need to decide on,” Flint said. The supervisors made the policy in 2022 but have not enforced it in any of the departments. 

Some employees in other departments have voluntarily stopped using their county-provided vehicle for school drop offs and pick ups county officials said.

Final vote was 4-1 to accept the insurance proposal with Burdette casting the lone dissent. He did not offer an explanation for his vote.