Chief Deputy Vic West told the Board of Commissioners (during its work session Tuesday) 27 deputies have left for higher-paying agencies in 2014.
“I’ve had three resignations today,” West told the board. “I just got the third one while we were sitting here. I can truthfully say — I’ve been here since 1981, with the exception of the four years when John Seay was sheriff — and I’ve never seen it like this. We all wanted the recession to be over, but when the gates opened up, our folks are leaving left and right. None of them are leaving for less money.”
The Sheriff’s Office has 342 positions, and 19 of those positions are open.
The standard starting pay for new officers is $35,328, which is well below some other metro Atlanta agencies, according to West.
West’s comments came after the board heard a presentation of an early version of the proposed fiscal 2015 budget, which showed an increase of about $400,000 for the Sheriff’s Office. But the money would primarily go to hiring seven new deputies to address overcrowding at the jail, not increasing overall pay, according to Cherokee Chief Financial Officer Janelle Funk.
The board also authorized county staff to advertise public hearings on a general fund millage rate of 5.730 mills for fiscal 2015, which is down from 5.798 mills in fiscal 2014. Commissioners said 5.730 was the highest the general fund rate would be, not the final number.
The rate includes a more than 2 percent cost-of-living pay raise for county employees, which, Funk said, will amount to about $425,000 for the Sheriff’s Office. It also includes about another $215,000, which Commissioner Ray Gunnin suggested the county may be able to send the Sheriff’s Office’s way, after West spoke.
Commissioner Harry Johnston, a CPA, said, by his calculations, the money Gunnin pushed for could give the 100 lowest-paid deputies another $2,150 a year, on top of the cost-of-living increase.
In total, the funds would add up to about $1 million in budget increases for the Sheriff’s Office.
But West says he needs more closer to $2.8 million to stop deputies from leaving.
“I’ve done a lot of research with other counties and cities around,” he said. “We are way below the market, 15 to 18 percent below the market.”
After hearing from West, several commissioners spoke up, saying they wanted to find a way to address the issue. Commissioner Brian Poole asked County Manager Jerry Cooper if he was looking into it. Cooper said he had met with the Sheriff’s Office and was working on a plan.
West said deputies are leaving for places such as Marietta, Brookhaven and Gwinnett County, where starting pay sometimes turns out to be considerably higher than in Cherokee County.
He mentioned one Cherokee deputy who is getting $15,000 more starting out with the Brookhaven Police Department than the county could pay. The chief deputy explained later the officer was getting paid because of his experience.
“Other agencies will pay for years of experience,” West said. “We’re a recruiting ground here for other agencies.”
Because of the shortage of deputies, the commission also unanimously approved donating 15 AR-15 rifles to the Georgia State Patrol. West told the board the State Patrol should have the weapons because he didn’t have the staff to give them to.
“This puts guns in the hands of the State Patrol, who can help us responding to calls,” he said. “We’re 50 officers shorter today than what we were in 2008. Unless we start lowering our hiring standards and start hiring people with criminal records, I don’t know what else to do. I’ll be coming back to you to ask for radar and laser units for the State Patrol so they can enforce traffic more aggressively, because I don’t have the officers to do it; that’s the simple fact.”
Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens said he would feel the same as West if he were in his position, but he could give no firm answer on how much the Board of Commissioners will increase the Sheriff’s Office’s coffers, as the budgeting process is barely started.
“The topic of attraction and retention is always on your radar, but I guess, when you have more than a normal turnover, you have to ask yourself, ‘What else should we or could we be doing?’” Ahrens said Wednesday. “It’s a management process.”
He said he anticipated the situation would be a topic of discussion for the commission as the budgeting process continues.
Ahrens attributed the issues to newly chartered cities starting police departments willing to pay more because they have to in order to get their programs off the ground.
Whatever the reason for the gap in pay between Cherokee and other agencies, West said if it keeps up the way it’s going, more officers will be moving on.
“I predict this will continue,” he told commissioners. “I understand every other department is probably facing the same thing. I understand, talking to some of the firefighters, they’re experiencing the same issue … I’m just telling you the facts.”