MONROE – Following a crowded Walton County Board of Commissioners called work session Thursday, a vote is expected at the next BOC meeting that could end up hiking the pay of certified deputies and correction officers at the Walton County Sheriff’s Office 15 percent by the next fiscal year. If successful, 10 percent of it would go into effect May 1. The 10 percent would be a “salary adjustment” and the balance would be included in the 5 percent cost of living adjustment that the county is considering across the board for all county employees in the new fiscal year. That action is expected to be taken later in the year.
The call for a vote came at the end of the meeting by Commissioner Mark Banks who said he intends to make the proposal for the 10 percent salary adjustment at the April BOC meeting. He clarified that the 10 percent would be immediate and he would ask that the WCSO deputies and correction officers also be included in the 5 percent COLA pay raise proposal. Finance Director Linda Hanna had cautioned that taking money from the county’s fund balance could have an adverse affect on the county’s credit rating.
“I’m going to propose in the next meeting a 10 percent raise for all sworn officers and jailers in the jail,” Banks said. “If I look at it right now, they just told me that there was 35 openings. At the base pay would be $30,000 each year. That’s a million and fifty thousand dollars. We don’t have to take anything out of the fund balance.”
Officials confirmed that the 35 open positions are funded in the current budget. Banks said he was making the proposal just for the Sheriff’s office, not because he valued the other departments any less, but because of the large number of vacancies the Sheriff’s office has.
“If we had those same vacancies in the fire department – in any other department – I’d be doing the same thing for any other department,” Banks said, after apologizing for offending anyone with his letter that had first kicked off the issue on social media. “To all public safety – to the firemen, EMS, 911, all of you in public safety – every employee – you’re very important to me. If I offended you in any way, I apologize. I know your lives are out there fighting fires and everything just like everybody else’s.”
The meeting had opened with Sheriff Joe Chapman making the case for a 10 percent immediate pay raise for deputies, including those serving in the jail. Chapman said he first brought the problem to the attention of the BOC by letter in December when the department was 15 members short. He said he now has 35 open positions that he is battling to fill – 17 of them in the jail. Chapman said the path to becoming a sheriff’s deputy on the streets is through the jail, but that is impossible to do right now because he can’t afford to take anyone out of the jail.
“The problem is that we’re losing people for a number of reasons, one being salary and the other being the atmosphere for law enforcement that just isn’t favorable anymore. People just don’t want to do it,” Chapman said, going on to explain that even a 10 percent raise is just going to catch up to what other departments are paying and most are doing the same as he is – seeking pay raises in an effort to fill their ranks. “I can tell you now everyone else including Barrow County, Newton and all the other law enforcement agencies, they are currently seeking pay increases for their people just like I am, or pay adjustments, to raise their people up. So if they get what they’re looking for, we’re going to be behind again, even if we get this. People ask me will 10 percent stop the bleeding. No. But I think what it will do – it will show the current people that we have that we’re concerned about them and we want to keep them and I think that will stop the exodus right now.”
Chapman said it was very demoralizing for young deputies who started off in the jail with hopes of moving into a road position not being able to advance even up to four years later. He said that a full shift in the jail is 15 or 16 on a shift and now they are running eight to nine. Road patrol is 12 to 14 on a shift and right now there are six to seven deputies on each shift and that is requiring a lot of overtime. He said Walton County is the 25th largest county in the state, geographically, and with just six or seven deputies on a shift it could increase responses times to up to 30 minutes.
County human resources director Karen Frazer pointed out that this was not just a Walton County problem, but was a state-wide problem. She said she was not sure that changing the pay scale would necessarily make a difference. Chapman said Georgia Sheriff’s Association has asked the state to help subsidize salaries for local jurisdiction after it had raised the salaries for all state law enforcement personnel this year, effectively causing all sheriff’s offices and city police departments to bleed personnel to state agencies. However, it never went anywhere at the Capitol and he said he was not in favor of the state getting involved, anyway, in what he felt was a county issue.
The county is currently commissioning a county-wide wage study, due in by the fall, that could have an impact on all county employees. Frazer said, dependent on the results of the study, it could raise salaries for some other county employees by 5 to 10 percent above the 5 percent COLA currently being proposed for all employees.
A vote on the 10 percent wage adjustment the Sheriff is asking for is expected to come at the next BOC meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. on April 4, at the Historic Walton County Courthouse in downtown Monroe.