It has often been said that the government which is the closest to the people governs best, but the ability to make decisions at the local level seems to be continually undermined by mandates, usually unfunded, from the state and federal governments. A recent example is Senate Bill 254, introduced last week in the Georgia General Assembly. It proposes to establish a statewide minimum salary for sheriff’s deputies at the starting pay of a Georgia State Patrol officer.
Deputies are employees of the sheriff. They are paid 100 percent from local county taxes and fees. The sheriff, who is accountable to county voters working in concert with county commissioners - also held to account by voters - should determine the appropriate compensation for these officers. The state legislature, which does not have any financial obligation for these employees, should not intervene in this relationship.
Many people agree that law enforcement officers are not paid enough for putting their life on the line to protect their community. It is even debatable if there is any amount of money worth the risk. But it is local elected officials, representing their constituents, who should decide on an appropriate balance between the level of service desired and the amount of taxes the community is willing to pay. In the private sector, the free market dictates what a business will have to pay to get a qualified employee. Why would we not expect the free market to determine what a local government needs to pay to get a qualified employee?
The economy in each community is different and an equally qualified person may be willing to work for a different salary depending upon where the job is located. Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous county with an estimated 1,010,000 residents, is far different than the state’s least populous Taliaferro County with a population of just 1,700. Yet, the state would impose the same minimum salary in each county.
The issue comes down to basic supply and demand, which cannot work if a state-imposed mandate supersedes basic economic factors. If there are not enough qualified job applicants for an open position, or if they refuse to work for the salary offered, then the compensation must increase in order to fill the position. Equally important, if sheriffs cannot retain the best and brightest employees, then they need to re-evaluate the way they compensate for performance.
Other than constitutionally elected positions, current state law does not mandate minimum salaries for local employees. To change this for local law enforcement would be unprecedented and undermine one of the key foundations of local control. If the legislature believes a public service should be provided and paid for uniformly across the entire state, then shouldn’t the state take over the service rather than dictate service standards to the local governments?
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Clint Mueller is the legislative director for ACCG, Georgia’s county association, www.accg.org.