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Constables in Shelby County, under fire recently during a Fiscal Court meeting, are the only ones in this region who draw a salary for their work.
A survey by The Sentinel-News of seven surrounding counties showed that no other county pays a salary to these elected officials, though some do offer stipends for duties performed at the county’s request.
This issue arose April 20, when Magistrate Michael Riggs suggested Shelby County should discontinue paying constables.
“Most counties don’t pay constables a nickel because they don’t do anything,” Riggs told Fiscal Court when magistrates were reviewing whether or not to lower the annual salaries of constables to $3,000. They ultimately decided not to cut constables’ pay.
Officials in Anderson, Spencer, Oldham, Franklin, Henry, Jefferson and Fayette counties said they did not pay constables.
“Never have, as far as I know,” Spencer County Deputy Judge-Executive Karen Curtsinger said.
And Oldham County Judge-Executive Dwayne Muner said that not only does his county not pay constables, but he would like to see the office abolished.
“I would support a constitutional amendment to do away with the office,” he said. “It’s a nuisance. Constables have all the police powers but have no training requirements. That’s a dangerous thing.”
A deputy at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office who wished to remain anonymous said that in Frankfort, the feeling is high among deputies to do away with the office.
“They don’t answer to us at all, but their badge is just as big as ours,” he said.
Should constables be paid?
Though constables do not receive a salary in Franklin County, they are adept at generating fees for services they perform, the deputy said.
“We have a lot of evictions here, and they can—and do—make a lot of money doing those,” he said.
Riggs said he doesn’t think constables should get a salary because they don’t do anything.
“The county pays its seven constables a combined $41,000 a year for doing practically nothing,” he said. “We could put that money to a much better use, like we could hire a deputy to provide more park security; we could really use that.”
Larry Gravett, incumbent constable for District 2, believes constables earn their money.
“Based on my previous experience as a constable, I believe this office should be a paid position within county government,” he said. “This salary serves as a reimbursement for equipment, uniforms, fuel costs and a yearly bond fee.”
Joyce Clayter, a constable for 20 years in Fayette County, said she does not mind that she isn’t paid a salary.
“We get paid fees by those who use our services,” she said.
But Jason Rector, president of the Kentucky Constable Association, points that that state law (KRS64.200) requires certain counties, such as those whose county seat is designated a First Class City (Shelbyville is a Fourth Class City), or those with a population of 250,000, or more to pay constables a salary.
So why don’t constables in Fayette County get paid?
“Well, constables there are not addressing the problem, but they’re supposed to get a salary,” he said.
Rector added that that Jefferson County government also took away constables’ pay.
“That’s an issue in Jefferson County because Louisville-Metro enacted an ordinance which took their money away, but that goes against the state statute,” he said. “And some constables there are taking a stand on that.”
In addition to the required salary in certain jurisdictions, each county is allowed to pay constables a salary if it wishes.
Riggs said that Shelby County started paying constables in the 1970s and has just continued that practice.
“We’re way out of line with that now; it’s just a political plum,” he said. “The very first thing I tried to do when I took office was to get it stopped, but nobody wants to offend them.”
Riggs added that when the Fiscal Court tried to abolish those salaries four years ago, constables took the matter to court and won, because the Fiscal Court did not act within a certain time frame near the time of the budget being approved, as required by state law.
What do constables do?
The office of constable is an ancient one, originating in the Eastern Roman Empire, and comes from the Latin term that means “count of the stables.” It referred to the officer responsible for caring for the horses of a lord or monarch and later developed into a high military rank in many countries.
Today, most constables are law enforcement officers. In the United Kingdom, Commonwealth of Nations and some European countries, a constable is the lowest rank of police officer, but in the United States a constable is generally an elected peace officer with lesser jurisdiction than a sheriff.
In the early days of the constable in Kentucky, constables had very specific duties, and got paid for them. Those fees remain on the books and include such things as making highway arrests (50 cents), killing a mad dog ($1) or castrating a jackass or bull ($1).
Today, the duties of the constable vary considerably, depending upon whom you ask.
“They can do anything they want to, because the constitution allows them to,” Riggs said.
Assisting the sheriff
Shelby County Sheriff Mike Armstrong said that constables help out at festivals and with traffic control at certain functions.
“They also help neighbors out in their districts with local concerns within their own communities,” he said.
Several constables and constable candidates echoed that sentiment.
Bobby Ivers, incumbent constable in District 3, who is in his seventh term, said he spends most of his official time now helping out his neighbors, especially older people in his community. Previously, he used to pull over people who ran stop signs, but he says he can’t do that anymore, because Fiscal Court took blue light privileges away from constables a few years ago.
“When I had blue lights, nobody ever ran a stop sign in the subdivisions in my district in Middleton Heights,” he said.
Define the duties
The mission statement of the Kentucky Constable Association emphasizes maintaining a close and positive working relationship with law enforcement and improving the status and role of the constable in the delivery of the criminal justice system.
Gravett said he has tried to abide by that code.
“When I assumed this position six years ago, I was to work in cooperation with the sheriff’s office, fire departments and other local emergency agencies,” he said. “This aid included traffic control, community events, and major inclement weather, which allowed those agencies to concentrate on more serious issues and concerns.
“For example, I checked roads for high water throughout this past weekend and stayed at one location until the county road department could get out there to put out signs.”
The mission statement also encourages constables to become actively involved in civic, community organizations and activities, something that local constables, at least, say they aspire to.
“I want to help out my neighbors, in whatever they need,” District 1 candidate Larry Temple said.
At a recent political forum, constable candidate Brandon Bailey told the crowd that if elected, he would give out his cell phone number to everyone.
And some constables, such as Gary Tindle in Mount Eden, are already permanent fixtures at community events.
Magistrate Betty Curtsinger that they may do more if they knew what was expected of them.
“We should lay down some guidelines to let them know what’s expected of them,” she said.
Do they know what’s expected of them? Riggs said he thinks so.
“They know what they’re supposed to do, they just know they don’t have to,” he said.
But Armstrong points out that though his deputies must undergo extensive training before hitting the streets, no training at all is required for constables, yet they have the same powers of arrest as a law enforcement officer.
“We have in the past given them some guidance, and we’re here to help them with any questions they might have,” he said.
Gravett believes that no matter how the office has changed, it still has an essential role in society.
“I feel that the function of this Constitutional office is still very important and should be preserved in order to keep a sense of community and to reassure residents that they have someone to call no matter what the circumstance,” he said.