Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren recently gave a huge raise to his lobbyist as the department struggles to attract and retain qualified deputies to secure the courthouse, serve warrants and run the jail, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
Louis ‘Louie’ Hunter is a former county commissioner and the sheriff’s director of legal and government affairs, a civilian position Warren created last summer. In March, after less than a year on the job and with no formal performance evaluation, Hunter saw his annual salary increase by nearly $18,000 to $92,770. That’s a 24 percent pay hike.
“That’s a sizable raise for somebody to get who is not a sworn deputy,” said Steve Gaynor, the president of the local branch of the Fraternal Order of Police. “It looks like it’s the good old boy system.”
Warren and Hunter did not respond to most of the AJC’s questions related to the raise, which were submitted by email and based on a review of Hunter’s personnel records and work calendar.
The steep increase to Hunter’s salary came in the midst of a vocal campaign by rank-and-file public safety personnel for better pay and benefits to address what they describe as a staffing crisis across the police, fire and sheriff’s departments.
Dozens of uniformed personnel, their families and supporters have packed town halls and commission meetings, sharing stories of overworked officers struggling to make ends meet.
Sheriff Warren, who is elected by the residents of Cobb County and has broad authority over the budget set for him by the Board of Commissioners, was largely absent from the debate.
In April, just weeks after securing Hunter’s raise, Warren published a letter to the editor addressing the staffing shortages at the jail, but did not seem to share the campaign’s urgency. He spoke of the “many challenges” to hiring law enforcement “across the county.”
“Although there is no ‘quick fix’ for increasing public safety hiring and retention, the public discussion of salary and benefits for law enforcement officers is certainly a step in the right direction,” Warren wrote.
The Sheriff’s Office currently has 95 vacancies, 73 of which are for sworn officers. As an elected constitutional officer, the sheriff is responsible for executing warrants, providing security at the courthouse and staffing the jail.
News of Hunter’s raise did not come as a surprise to at least one Cobb deputy, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation from the sheriff.
“The upper staff make a ridiculously large amount of money,” the deputy said. “It’s all politics and election time at the end of the food chain.”
Gaynor, the FOP president, said deputies are currently being forced to work overtime at the jail, which he described as dangerously understaffed. Even with the overtime, many deputies have taken on additional shifts or side jobs to supplement their income, while others are retiring or leaving for better opportunities.
“The sheriff, quite frankly, is not fighting for his folks to get better pay and benefits, so they don’t see a future and they definitely don’t see a safe future,” Gaynor said. “He is an elected official, so the commissioners cannot do anything for his people without him stepping up.”
Deferring to the sheriff
The issue of staffing at the jail has implications for the safety of county employees and inmates, as well as for the legal exposure of the county, and, by extension, taxpayers.
Cobb recently settled one lawsuit for nearly $50,000 with a former inmate, and is facing several others alleging inappropriate use of force and harassment at the jail. Deputies say they often lack backup in case of violence or in a medical emergency.
In a statement, Warren said the safety of personnel and inmates is of the utmost importance but did not elaborate.
The sheriff also justified the raise, saying that while Hunter’s initial duties included being at the state Capitol during the legislative session, his role has expanded to include assisting with the budget process and representing Warren on various committees and at public events.
“Having served as a Cobb Commissioner, Director Hunter brings a clear view of the county budget process and has been instrumental in helping to streamline the communication between the county and the sheriff,” the statement said.
Hunter served less than a year as the West Cobb commissioner before resigning his seat in April, 2000 to run for chairman. He withdrew from that race after six weeks. Since then, he has become well known at the statehouse as a lobbyist for healthcare companies and utilities, among others.
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs Association, said it’s not unusual for departments to have a public affairs or government liaison whose job can include lobbying.
“If people are attempting to change laws, with good intentions, that’s going to have a vast impact on the cost and deliverables of the sheriff’s office,” he said. “We have to speak up about that.”
Hunter was first hired by Sheriff Warren as a part-time analyst in January, 2018 for $30 an hour. Last summer, Warren converted a lieutenant colonel position to a new civilian position called the director of legislative and governmental affairs and hired Hunter.
The job came with a $75,016 salary and a take-home car, for which taxpayers have reimbursed Hunter $1,366 for fuel to date. There is no evidence the job was ever posted publicly or anyone else applied.
Then, early this year, Warren asked the county to reclassify Hunter’s job from an appointed position with a set salary range to an appointed position with no salary range, and to boost his pay.
Hunter’s raise was personally approved by County Manager Rob Hosack, emails show.
Two months later, Hosack brought forward a motion to grant one-time, $1,475 bonuses to public safety employees as a first step toward addressing their grievances.
“The money that’s being appropriated from the general fund tonight for the payment to the sheriff’s personnel is due solely to the increased costs that are really out of control of the Sheriff’s Office, such as the extra overtime, the unknown inmate medical expenses,” Hosack told the commission, which unanimously approved the payments.
Recently, Hosack said that Hunter’s raise and take-home vehicle were examples of spending that was well within the sheriff’s control. He said although he had the authority to reject the sheriff’s request for Hunter’s raise, he did not feel he could say no.
“If the sheriff is comfortable with it I feel like it wouldn’t be proper for me to question whether or not they’re using good judgment,” Hosack said. “I don’t know if it would be wise for me to question an elected official.”
He added that the change did not impact the overall budget for the Sheriff’s Office, which was increased by $10 million to $85 million in 2019.
Chairman Mike Boyce said through a spokesman that he was travelling and unable to comment.
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