DeKalb police and fire employees protest pay

Credit: Mark Niesse

Credit: Mark Niesse

DeKalb police officers and firefighters stood together Tuesday as they asked county commissioners for a pay raise they say is needed to prevent further personnel losses.

Public safety employees have been taking jobs in surrounding jurisdictions that provide higher salaries, and those who have remained behind said they're struggling to pay their bills.

In a show of solidarity, more than two dozen employees rose from their seats whenever a speaker mentioned the pay issue Tuesday.

“We’re losing officers at such a great number and a record pace,” said Maj. Tonya Dedrick in comments before the commission. “The time to act is now.”

The DeKalb police department has shrunk from about 1,100 officers less than a decade ago to just over 800 officers today, according to Blue DeKalb, a group advocating for pay raises.

County officials have said a significant part of the drop in police numbers was caused by the creation of the cities of Dunwoody and Brookhaven, which started their own police departments, leaving DeKalb with a smaller coverage area.

Starting pay for DeKalb police is less than $38,000 compared to about $40,000 in Fulton County, said Jeff Wiggs, president of the DeKalb Fraternal Order of Police.

“We have officers who go out to horrible crimes every day, and we see that pain and take it home,” said Sgt. Marne Mercer after the DeKalb Commission meeting. “It is about pay because I have four kids, and I can’t afford the groceries I need to feed them.”

Other than a 3 percent raise given to all DeKalb employees in 2014, police haven’t see a pay increase since 2007. Police and fire employees also received a one-time 3 percent bonus in 2013.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, the chairwoman of the county’s Budget Committee, said she wants to find money for a raise in this year’s budget, which is scheduled for a vote Feb. 25. The current version of the budget doesn’t include funding for raises.

“I think there’s room in the budget,” Sutton said. “We want to make sure we’re paying all of our employees what they deserve.”

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May supports pay increases, but he prefers to wait until after a study of the county’s pay competitiveness is finished.

Preliminary findings of the study in November indicated police are paid within market ranges, but some salary classifications may need to be adjusted, according to a presentation delivered to the DeKalb Commission.

“One of our goals is to shore up our budgetary reserves in order to have the funding available at midyear to fully give a more comprehensive pay adjustment for all of our employees, focusing on public safety,” May said.

Firefighters said their take-home pay has declined because the cost of health benefits and pension contributions has risen.

“It breaks my heart to see some of the most talented and dedicated brothers and sisters on the job forced to leave the county they love just as much as I do because they can’t afford to work here,” said William Knight, a DeKalb firefighter for nearly 10 years. “They can’t afford to see their paychecks decrease every year while the cost of living increases.”

Police are also asking for the county to reinstate a 5 percent automatic pay increase distributed to officers who were promoted.

“We need a raise. We’re losing officers faster than we can replace them,” said Capt. Alex Mears, who has been with the force for 22 years.