TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - The clock is ticking for Pima County to avoid a lawsuit over a Pima County Sheriff's Department pay plan.
Notice-of-claim letters have been delivered to the Pima County Attorney, Pima County Board of Supervisors, and Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier.
Now we hear from the deputies as to why they took this legal action.
Four deputies gave their word to the citizens of Pima County that they would protect them, but they feel the county hasn't lived up to the promise it's made and is balancing the budget on the backs of the deputies in the department.
"Deputies feel very disheartened, feel abandoned. And feel they have been taken advantage of and lied to again," said Detective Therese Deschenes.
Deschenes and the other deputies joined the sheriff's department after being enticed by recruiting ads that ran in newspapers beginning in the late 1990's.
The department touted its 'Step Program' -- the promise of annual pay increases for the first several years.
"When they hired me, they said this is the program that we offer. It was one of the main reasons for joining this department," said deputy John Henson.
As was the case for Detectives Ricardo Garcia and Ted Hertenstein, who entered around the same time 2007 and 2008, just as the global economic collapse hit Pima County hard.
The county put the brakes on the Step Program and wanted the deputies' cooperation.
Union president Eric Cevantez told KGUN9, "we were told that they couldn't honor that due to the economy, which is very understandable."
"The understanding was we're going to suspend this for a while, but we'll catch you up later," said detective Ted Hartenstein, "Economic conditions improved in the county. The recession ended."
"We waited patiently and that was the same thing, year after year after year," said Cevantez.
"And then, maybe next year. And then maybe next year. And it just never comes," said Hartenstein.
"It makes it difficult. It makes it difficult to support the family," said deputy John Henson.
"Paying bills is a struggle. We can't tell the mortgage company we agreed to pay them and then decide not to," said Deschenes
The deputies say to add insult to injury the new sheriff Mark Napier told deputies while he campaigned that he'd fight to fix the Step Program.
He made an announcement in a December memo that the Step Program is dead and is never coming back.
County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry agreed to support Napier's compensation reform plan that would replace the Step program entirely.
"That's when we realized they are never going to make it right," said Deschenes.
Cervantez said, "the association decided enough was enough."
And retained attorney Steve Portell said, "what's breathtaking is the sheriff's Dec. 11 memo throws everything out the window. It says falsely that his new system -- it's been approved by the county. That's simply not true. He did not have support of the County Administrator. That had never been officially or even unofficially announced by anybody."
KGUN9 obtained public records from the County Administrator's Office that reveal Napier discussed compensation reform with Chuck Huckleberry after the Board of Supervisors abandoned the existing step program when it adopted the year's budget.
A week after Napier's statement, Huckleberry wrote a memo asking staff to review the revised plan.
The sheriff also claimed he had broad public support, but Portell says Napier made unilateral decisions that had never been vetted and approved.
"Without any regard to the statutory framework -- without even following county ordinances. That's wrong," said Portell.
The deputies are seeking damages for lost income -- ranging from $113,000 to $150,000.
"This is not about grabbing money. This is about integrity. If they have the integrity to protect us day in and day out, we should at least have the integrity to keep our promises," said Portell.
KGUN9 reached out to the county administrator, board of supervisors and the sheriff. All responded and stated they couldn't comment on pending litigation, but the sheriff told us today he has a few minor details to iron out and he does have the support of the county administrator.
The county has until mid-February to resolve this pay issue or face being sued.