Torpy at Large: Time for statewide cop pay hike? Send bill to Atlanta

Deputies in rural Georgia counties: “The public has no idea how poorly their local deputy sheriffs are paid.”
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Deputies in rural Georgia counties: “The public has no idea how poorly their local deputy sheriffs are paid.”

Soon after moving to Georgia, I learned the disillusionment of police work. In 1992, Budweiser was opening a brewery in Cartersville and I interviewed job hopefuls queuing up outside — textile workers, truck drivers, cashiers and a fellow in a police uniform.

The man was tired of small-town policing. “I’m only making $8 an hour — and I’m the chief!” he said, requesting anonymity.

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It’s no secret, many cops across Georgia — especially those in the boonies — don’t make diddly.

Politicians have long paid lip service to the issue, but little else. They know, especially in Georgia, that raising taxes can be scarier than facing down disgruntled employees with badges and guns on their belts.

Year after year, salaries remain flat while the pressure on the job increases. So cops job-hop to other departments or even leap out of the business.

The average annual deputy pay statewide is $29,900, according to the Georgia Sheriff's Association. Some barely make $20,000. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study said 3,200 cops, bailiffs and prison guards get food stamps.

Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, thinks that number is low.

“The public has no idea how poorly their local deputy sheriffs are paid,” he said.

So, when Gov. Nathan Deal and the legislature gave State Patrol and other state law officers a 20 percent raise this year — bringing starting pay to $46,422 — the Cop Pay Sweepstakes was off and running statewide.

With the State Patrol’s pay bump in mind, Norris’ group is leading the charge to get all deputies and local police officers up to that $46K starting pay. And those seeking the increases want the state to foot the bill.

In all, he figures there are about 29,000 local cops and deputies across Georgia.

Sure, Norris says, the State Patrol has fine officers. "But they are traffic officers. They write tickets. They don't answer 911 calls," he said. About 95 percent of the heavy lifting — arrests and serving warrants statewide — comes from deputies and local cops.

But there's a problem, a big one. Across the state, basically nobody starts at $46K. Atlanta cops, for instance, start out at $40,000 with a high school degree or $42,800 if they paid attention for four years of college.

Bringing cops up in pay is a no-brainer. You want (need, actually) quality recruits. And then you want good officers to stay. But this immediately brings about many questions:

  • Why should a cop in a town of 3,277 residents make the same as cops in Atlanta or DeKalb County, places where criminals are many and 911 calls never-ending?
  • What about sergeants, captains and supervisors who are currently making $46K or under? Don't they deserve to make a lot more than green recruits? Won't that cost a bunch more money?
  • Wouldn't the state, by subsidizing these departments, want to have major say-so in how they are run?
  • Aren't cities and counties that are already digging deep to bring their cops near the $46K mark getting penalized? I mean, some governments are currently stepping up to pay that rate but now these other departments want to slide in and get money from elsewhere to pay what their own citizens won't.
  • And finally, who will pay the freight?

I can answer the last question: Mostly Atlanta.

We often hear grumbling from the Outside Metro Atlanta Crowd that the city is a sponge for state resources. However, a detailed study a few years back by Peter Bluestone at the Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University found that metro Atlanta is Georgia’s Sugar Daddy.

Back in 2009, GSU researchers found that the 10 counties making up metro Atlanta had 43 percent of the state's population and generated 53 percent of the state's taxable income. That area contributed 51 percent of state revenue but got back just 37 percent of state expenditures.

In essence, each man, woman and child in metro Atlanta cuts a check for about $500 for each man, woman and child across the state.

Granted, people in the far-out counties are forever yelling for local control, personal responsibility and lower taxes.

Until it’s time for someone to cut them a check.

I told Norris that such a measure would push up the cost of cops in Atlanta, DeKalb and Cobb County because those departments would have to jack their salaries up to stay ahead of the rural departments, places being subsidized by taxpayers in Atlanta, DeKalb and Cobb. In essence, we’d be both helping others and screwing ourselves.

Norris, ever the advocate, acknowledged, “This is not a simple conversation.”

“We should care about the safety of all our citizens,” he said “and all our officers.”

He contends that sheriffs are essentially state-mandated law enforcement officers, but counties are left paying the bill. And often those counties don’t have the tax base to pay their officers what they deserve.

Per state law, he said, sheriffs must maintain a jail, serve warrants and civil papers and secure the local courthouse. Most also police their counties.

I pointed out they are maintaining local jails filled with local criminals and are serving local warrants to local knuckleheads.

The 20 percent pay bump cost $79 million to benefit 3,300 state officers. How much would moving 29,000 officers up the pay scale cost? A $10,000 bump shared by that group, for instance, would cost $290 million.

That’s totally back-of-the-envelope calculations, but it’s ultimately going to cost real money.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Cops everywhere should get paid a living wage. But so should firefighters. And the list will go on.

But when an increase comes — and one should — then I hope those across the state do the right thing: Send metro Atlanta a thank you note.

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