Georgia police pay hikes spark salary fight

A year ago, Gov. Nathan Deal stood before an imposing phalanx of steely eyed police officers and announced his major policy initiative for the year – a proposal to raise state law enforcement pay by 20 percent.

What seemed so uncontroversial at the time has ballooned into a broader debate that has riven the law enforcement community, shaken up the race for governor and set off a clash over the worth of police officers.

Among county and city law enforcement officials, Deal’s pay hike for state troopers touched a nerve. Local cops — who make the vast majority of arrests in the state and account for most of those killed in the line of duty — argue they deserve a similar raise. And they want the state to foot the bill.

“The public wants to pay us,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills. “It’s the government officials who can’t get it together.”

Gubernatorial candidates from both parties have explored hiking salaries of local police. A task force convened by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in May suggested increasing the existing premium tax by one percent on auto insurance policies plus a state base supplement of $5,000 per year per sworn officer.

The issue could come to a head in the legislative session that begins in January. Lawmakers are expected to debate several proposals that would boost local law enforcement pay.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Sheriffs Association is looking to force the issue with a proposal that could raise the salaries of sheriff’s deputies to equal state troopers, and make county jailers’ salaries the same as state correctional officers.

Some county law enforcement officials are coming up with their own solutions. In Cobb County, lawmakers are considering a proposal to raise the county’s sales tax to boost the county’s public safety department.

“What the governor did touched every county, every police department. In the great scheme of things, the state now gets to choose who they want,” said Commissioner Bob Weatherford, who introduced the proposal. “And that’s focused everybody, in smaller counties and larger ones, to keep an eye on raises.”

State leaders are left in a bind, torn between support for front-line local police — who wield political clout in their communities and fears of setting a costly new precedent.

Some have echoed Deal’s stance that the state should have no role in setting sheriff deputy pay because it would give Georgia the “control mechanism” over local officers — and require the state to come up with the money to pay for it.

House Speaker David Ralston said he worries that sheriffs see the push for a minimum wage as a “way for somebody else to do their dirty work – which is to get pay raises through the back door without going the traditional route” of going to their county commissions and seeking a pay boost.

“Some sheriffs worry they can’t be seen as asking for this because it looks like increasing spending,” he added. “At some point, you have to understand that’s part of the job.”

‘I have to have parity’

The governor’s budget proposal, overwhelmingly approved early this year by the state Legislature, raised annual pay for more than 3,300 state troopers by an average of $8,000 at a cost of about $80 million. It immediately boosted state patrol pay in Georgia from 50th in the nation to 24th in the nation.

It also started a full-blown fight with local agencies scrambling to match the new roughly $46,000 starting pay for a trained state trooper. The average statewide starting sheriff’s deputy pay is about $29,000, but several counties pay well below $25,000. The average annual starting pay for jailers is $25,300.

The pay disparity has had dire implications for some deputies on the front lines. An analysis by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that roughly 3,200 law enforcement officers in Georgia rely on food stamps. And sheriffs officials are preparing to make their case to lawmakers.

Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said local officers are responsible for more than 94 percent of the arrests in Georgia last year – and seven of the nine officers killed in the line of duty in 2016. His organization is backing a one-cent sales tax to help fund a new mandatory minimum salary for deputy sheriffs and jailers.

Norris said sheriffs don’t expect local property taxpayers to pay for the costs, especially since some rural counties have minuscule tax bases. But he said county sheriffs have a sweep of mandates and duties outlined in state law or defined by court cases that have never been funded by state appropriations.

It’s not just rural areas where police departments are fighting to keep up with the state.

“There will have to be attention paid to salaries for active employees and those that we’re trying to hire for us to continue to hire and, more importantly, retain the talent,” said Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields.

APD pays officers a starting salary of roughly $40,000 (plus an extra $2,500 annually for cadets with a Bachelor’s degree) — comparable to neighboring departments. But APD officers top out at $55,000, compared to $66,000 for DeKalb County and $62,000 for Cobb. Recruitment and retention has been a challenge, Shields said.

But outside of metro Atlanta, new hires and veteran officers make considerably less.

“My chief deputy makes less than a corporal with the state patrol,” said Sills, Putnam County’s top cop. “If I’m going to hire and keep personnel I have to have parity with state officers.”

Putnam deputies start off making $29,291, well below the competition. As a result, Sills said the county is chronically short-staffed.

“I’m not alone in this situation,” said Sills, pointing to similar shortages in Morgan, Jasper and Bibb counties. “We’re a training ground for state and federal law enforcement agencies. You stay here one, two years then move on.

As a result, Sills said his deputies are unable to perform any “proactive” policing measures. What does that mean for the public?

“You’re not going to have the same response times,” he said. “You’re not going to have the same attention given to a burglary.”

‘Empty promises’

The growing debate over police pay has fast become a clear dividing line in the 2018 race to succeed Deal.

A measure that would set a pay floor for deputy sheriffs by state Sen. Michael Williams, a GOP candidate for governor, gained little traction in this year’s session. But he has made it a staple of his stump speech and leaned on TV reality figure “Dog the Bounty Hunter” to help make the case.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, another candidate for governor, formed a task force to review police compensation. The commission’s findings are set to be released before lawmakers convene in January.

The two Democratic contenders, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, have both signaled they’re open to the idea. Abrams said she’ll support policies to promote “living wages” across the state, while Evans said she’ll support a base pay for local officers.

“Counties and cities need help to be able to pay these officers what they deserve, and when I’m Governor we will help them do it,” Evans said.

Other Republican contenders for governor are staunchly opposed, warning that the change carries broad policy implications that could force the state to impose more control.

Former state Sen. Hunter Hill said “forcing unfunded mandates on local governments is not the way to fix this issue.” And Secretary of State Brian Kemp said establishing a minimum wage for officers is “bad policy and sets a terrible precedent.”

“We should exercise bold, principled leadership on this issue instead of doling out empty promises to our brave men and women in uniform,” said Kemp.

Officer backlash

Some local officials are trying to take the debate into their own hands.

Weatherford, the Cobb commissioner, backs a proposal to raise the county sales tax from 6 to 7 percent to bring in about $130 million more a year for public safety.

A chunk of those funds – about $30 million – would go to Cobb’s six cities. Much of the rest would be spent on county law enforcement, including raises for deputies, new hires and the construction of a new indoor firing range. He’s calling it a public safety option sales tax, and would likely couple it with a property tax rollback.

“We’ve been looking for some way to compensate our officers. We keep losing more every year,” said Weatherford. “And when the governor gives every officer in the state a 20 percent pay raise, that hurt us as well.”

Columbus provided a model of sorts in 2008 when voters approved a one percent local option sales tax, with 70 percent of that intake dedicated to public safety and 30 percent going to roads and infrastructure.

But, nearly a decade later, Columbus found itself struggling again to hire and retain officers. In order to hike starting pay above $40,000, Columbus removed 16 of the 100 new positions funded by the sales tax passed in 2008. The money saved from those unfunded positions went to officer pay.

McDonough, where the starting salary for new officers has jumped from $34, 498 to $42,980 in two years, followed a similar strategy, sacrificing two funded positions.

“Officers have to be able to pay their bills,” said McDonough Police Chief Preston Dorsey. “And with the economy getting better we were having a tough time competing.”

The applicants were mostly non-certified officers, said Dorsey, adding new hires felt no compunction to remain with the department.

Now, “we’re seeing an upswing of applicants,” he said, many of them veteran officers.

But for other municipalities, particularly in more rural parts of the state, departments are already understaffed. And with many offering under $30,000 for rookie officers, new revenues will have to be generated.

The public will go along, Putnam’s Sheriff Sills said, as long as the money is earmarked directly to law enforcement.

Sills said departments like his are nearing a crisis point.

“If things don’t change we’re not going to be able to recruit any new officers,” he said. “And it has to be a drastic move. We can’t afford to put this off any longer.”

Here are the annual starting salaries for some Georgia law enforcement jobs:

Ga. State Patrol: $35,741

Average for deputies in Ga.: $29,000

Average for jailers in Ga: $25,300

Atlanta Police Department: (approx.): $40,000

Putnam deputies: $29,291

Columbus officers: $40,000

McDonough officers: $42,980