Battle brewing over potential employee pay raises in Walton County

A battle is brewing in Walton County over pay raises for county employees, but the situation is a little more complicated than it appears at first glance. It came to the surface last week when Sheriff Joe Chapman announced at the TRIAD meeting in Loganville that he would be going to bat for a 10 percent raise for his deputies and jail employees.

“Today I am 23 deputies short – and that hurts us,” Chapman said to attendees, adding he believed he was going to have to go to war with some members of the Walton County Board of Commissioners over the issue. “I am about to start a war with the Chairman of Board of Commissioners so I can hire more people and keep the ones I got. We have got good deputies, but we need more. When that time comes that is going to be a battle I pick. I pick and choose my battles, but that is one I will pick.”

The issue was then taken to social media with Walton County Sheriff’s Office sharing a letter that Commissioner Mark Banks wrote to his fellow board members asking that they consider the 10 percent pay raise that Chapman is asking for. Banks opened it with the words “HELP POLICE,” noting those are words you hope to never have to use. He ended with the suggestion that those words now need to be used in another context, suggesting it should be a cry on their behalf, even if it were to require a raise in taxes. In making his point, Banks pointed to a recent situation where a deputy was able to disarm a man who confronted them with a gun when they were responding to a domestic dispute.

However, while many agree that deputies are deserving of a pay raise, some of the words in Banks’ letter angered other county employees, most notably those in the fire department. Some even took to getting up a petition asking for Banks’ resignation from the BOC. The words they took exception to were, “While I think all employees make Walton County great, not all face the dangers of an officer [law enforcement]. No other department requires body armor to be worn daily. No other employee has to face losing their life, or taking a life, each time a shift begins.”

The petition, which currently only has seven signatures, notes, “This is completely false. Fire and EMS are being fired on at an ever increasing and alarming rate. Fire and EMS both wear protective equipment. Both are exposed to extremely dangerous situations and know that they could lose their life in a split second on any call. Fire and EMS agencies are also now issuing body armor to personnel. They also face extreme temperatures inside burning structures, over 1,000F, deadly disease, and a high risk for PTSD and suicide as well.”

Banks, however, appeared to feel strongly enough about this to note that he is in favor of a raise for the WCSO even if it meant raising taxes, something most politicians avoid if at all possible.

“I am usually not in favor of tax increases, however, this is one that I support regardless of any present, or future, political aspirations. I am now asking the citizens of Walton County, the business community, civic organizations, but most of all, the Walton County Board of Commissioners, to support a 10 percent pay increase for all sworn officers and jailers at the Walton County Sheriff’s Department,” Banks wrote.

But the concern for many is that if WCSO personnel are given a 10 percent raise, it will be at the expense of other departments, most of which are hoping for a 5 percent raise across the board. Walton County Fire Rescue Chief Mike Moore said WCFR personnel got a 3 percent raise last year.

“We would love 10 percent also, but understand we are fine with the 5 percent that the Board is proposing,” he said.

Contributed photo

WCFR Training Officer Capt. Jeff Allen also took to social media to say that while he fully supports his fellow public safety personnel at WCSO, he wanted to educate the public on just what dangers other county personnel face, in particular firefighters. In doing so, he reminded people of the firefighters who rushed into a burning building last month in hopes of saving the lives of Quentin Moses and Andria and Jasmine Godard. While their efforts sadly were not successful, the dangers they faced in doing so were no less because of the outcome. He shared a photograph of the remains of a uniform of one of the firefighters who had borne the brunt of the heat while steaming water on his fellow firefighters as they battled to get Moses out of the structure. The firefighters involved in the rescue attempt are going to be recognized by the Monroe City Council next week.

The problems for Georgia’s sheriff’s deputies, however, are a little different. Law enforcement personnel have been dogged with a negative perception in recent years, leading in many instances to them facing greater danger in the field. This has made it more difficult for departments to recruit new personnel and in Georgia this was exacerbated recently when Gov. Nathan Deal gave all state law enforcement personnel a 20 percent pay raise, effective Jan. 1 this year.

The Georgia Sheriff’s Association has asked the state to help subsidize salaries for local jurisdiction because this raise has caused sheriff’s offices and city police departments to bleed personnel to state agencies such as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia State Patrol. It has also asked sheriffs across the state to make known the predicament this has put local jurisdictions in.

In a letter to the Georgia General Assembly, the Georgia Sheriff’s Association noted, “Presently the average starting salary of a deputy sheriff in Georgia is $29,900, which is over fifty (50) percent less than the new starting salary of a state trooper. While we have no salary data readily available for county and municipal police officers, generally their salaries are also quite a bit lower than the salaries of state officers. Due to much lower salaries, the critical issue of officer retention for local police departments and sheriffs’ offices continues to represent a significant problem as many local officers seek higher paying positions with state agencies and the private sector.”

In a letter to the Eatonton Messenger, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills noted that Georgia ranks 4th in the nation in law enforcement deaths in the line of duty. He also noted that of the 140 law enforcement deaths nationwide in 2016, 106 of the men or women were local city or county police or deputy sheriffs.

“Even more unusual this year are the occurrences of officers being ambushed simply because they are the police. Of the 65 killed by gunmen last year, 21 of the officers were ambushed. This is the first time in my career that I can ever remember officers being shot as they sat in their cars or fired upon when they arrived on the scene of a bogus call. This is genuinely unprecedented in our history, and everyone in our profession is on edge and worried as never before,” Sills wrote. “As a sheriff, my single biggest difficulty has been the inability to hire and retain qualified officers. This is not unique to Putnam County, but a systemic problem throughout Georgia law enforcement.”

Walton County’s fire chief says while recruitment can be a problem for all public safety, he does recognize this difference between recruiting fire personnel and recruiting law enforcement officers.

“We are fortunate to have a large pool of persons wanting to work for us, but everyone still loves firefighters,” Moore said. “We are always at risk for one reason or another but, again, fire is very different from sheriff’s offices since we don’t receive the negativity from social media that they do.”

Walton County BOC Chairman Kevin Little said he doesn’t believe he should comment at this time as the budget process is just beginning.

“We are currently starting our budget process and we will evaluate this as we proceed through the process. I have the utmost respect for our deputies and what they do for Walton County as well as all of our employees,” Little said.

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