Sheriffs want state to set minimum pay for deputies, city police

Big pay increase for state troopers sets off campaign
Master trooper Bernie Talley makes a speeding stop on I-85 in LaGrange in April 2016. There are huge swatches of Georgia, almost all in rural Georgia, in which there are no troopers on the roads in the middle of the night. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Combined ShapeCaption
Master trooper Bernie Talley makes a speeding stop on I-85 in LaGrange in April 2016. There are huge swatches of Georgia, almost all in rural Georgia, in which there are no troopers on the roads in the middle of the night. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Georgia sheriffs were rankled when they heard that state troopers, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents and other state law enforcement officers would see 20 percent salary bump starting with their first paychecks of 2017, on the 16th.

The governor's plan to give state law enforcement officers an average increase in pay of $8,000 left sheriffs statewide asking "what about us?"

Sheriffs have complained that deputies are leaving in droves for more livable salaries offered by state, federal and larger police agencies

“I absolutely support those officers getting a raise and think they deserve it,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills wrote in a letter to colleagues. “On the other hand though, if the state officers deserve a 20 percent increase, local city and county officers deserve the same increase, if not more.”

Credit: Kent Johnson

Credit: Kent Johnson

Local deputies and city police officers, however, are funded by county or city taxes, not state, leaving some to say this issue has to be addressed at the local level and not by state government.

“There’s probably nobody who thinks they (local law enforcement) are paid enough,” said Clint Mueller, legislative director for the Association County Commission. “But there has to be that balance. You have to have that discussion locally.”

Still, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, which ordinarily holds sway with legislators, wants a state-mandated minimum salary for deputies, and they want the state to raise taxes or designate certain fees to cover the higher pay.

“It’s a very aggressive agenda,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who chairs the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. “I realize the rural officers have problems. At the end of the day, all those (county) commissioners and mayors need to speak up and put their money where their mouth is with pay raises. It’s something that will have to be looked at, but they start getting into things we need to be cautious about.”

The outcry from many sheriffs started almost immediately after Gov. Nathan Deal announced in September his plan to increase pay for state law enforcement. And the sheriffs' predictions of disaster have only intensified with letter-writing, emails and calls to legislators in the months leading up to the opening this week of the 2017 General Assembly.

Unless money is found to improve pay for local law enforcement, “we’re going to have unions or we’re going to end up in a situation where we’re not going to be able to answer calls for service and do the duties we are required to do or we’ll hire people that never should be police officers,” said Sills, second vice president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. “That’s where we’re going if we don’t address this disparity.”

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

One example of that disparity Sills cites: a State Patrol corporal makes about $30,000 a year more than Sills’ deputies, who start at $28,438 and see an increase to $29,291 a year only after they have been with the agency six months. Sills has 20 deputies — five fewer than he should.

Another example Sills uses is Bibb County, where the sheriff’s office has 157 vacancies.

“Our plight of hiring and retaining personnel was exponentially exacerbated last September when Governor Deal announced that ALL state law enforcement personnel would be receiving a 20 percent increase in pay,” Sills wrote. “Our very best officers almost always leave local law enforcement agencies after a few years and go on to better pay and benefits with state and federal agencies.”

The shortages sheriffs are facing are much like what the Georgia State Patrol experienced for years. The Department of Public Safety hopes the possibility of higher starting pay will help as they recruit at job fairs around the state.

Sgt. 1st Class Crystal Zion, a member of of the newly created 12-person recruitment team, said the Patrol is short 171 troopers, but applications increased after the pay increase was announced. The Patrol received 38 applications for trooper spots the week before the announcement and 76 applications the week after.

“I don’t know if it’s all because of the money, but it’s a part of it,” Zion said.

The GBI is convinced an uptick in applicants is in direct response to the pay increase.

The GBI has 269 agents and only six vacancies. In 2015, 429 applied to be GBI agents. After the governor’s September announcement, 748 applied.

“The 20 percent raise had everything to do with it,” said GBI deputy director Scott Dutton. “The raise goes a long way in keeping … agents and helping us in our recruiting efforts for the best candidates possible.”

Starting salary now for a GBI agent is $48,592 and a field agent with 15 years tops out $85,322.

Right now, there are not enough state troopers to respond to thousands of wrecks each year. And in two-thirds of the state, the shortage is so acute that there are stretches of time each day when there are no troopers on the roads, according to records.

Other state law enforcement agencies have not been hit quite as hard though they, too, see officers leaving for federal agencies and and larger police departments.

“Everybody supports that whole concept of bringing forward compensation for local officers,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs Association. “The only disagreement is some say it’s a state mandate on locals and some say how are they going to pay for it. We don’t have a conclusion or solution on that. We’ve made suggestions.”

One is a state sales tax dedicated to paying local law enforcement. Another is an additional assessment on traffic tickets that would go back to local governments to raise their officers’ pay.

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