Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes hosted a lunch Tuesday to promote raises for deputies and it attracted nearly a dozen sheriffs, a roomful of deputies and a handful of legislators.
The meeting, at the Liberty County Community Complex, was important for Sikes and Georgia Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Terry Norris. They and many of their counterparts are championing the cause for better pay for officers throughout the state.
In January, Gov. Nathan Deal gave a 20-percent raise to the 3,300 state law enforcement officers. That increased entry level salaries for a Georgia State Patrol trooper from approximately $38,000 to $46,000.
The sheriffs say smaller law enforcement agencies have seen a significant drop in applicants and increased turnovers as deputies seek state jobs with higher wages.
The average compensation of a deputy or city police officer in the state is $29,900 to $31,000 a year. The average starting salary for a jailer is $26,000.
“This is not enough to support a family,” Sikes said. “Many of my deputies have second jobs to make ends meet and I personally find this heartbreaking and unacceptable.”
Sikes’ sentiments were echoed by nearly every sheriff in attendance.
Pierce County Sheriff Ramsey Bennett said local officers are first responders, not state troopers. He said when he first became sheriff he earned $13.13 an hour, while multitasking as sheriff, receptionist, dispatcher and jailer. He added he also held two part-time jobs to support his family.
“It’s time for the legislators of this state to decide that the deputy sheriffs and jailers … get paid for the job they do,” he said, adding the governor set the minimum wage.
“Let’s use his figures,” Bennett said.
“We are the first responders, no offense to state troopers or anything, but our local deputies are the first on scene,” Effingham County Sheriff Jimmie McDuffie agreed. “And when you have officers that work for you that are on Peach Care and food stamps there is something wrong.”
McDuffie said his department currently has seven openings, “But we have no applicants.”
Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump said state officials did not realize the trickle-down effect the pay increase had at the local level.
Speaking to the legislators, he and several others, said county commissions and municipalities can’t afford to pay for the increases through local taxes.
“It must come from the state,” he said as the crowd nodded in agreement.
“We can’t continue to burden our local taxpayers,” Sikes added.
“Local counties can’t afford the raises. It has to be done at the state level,” Long County Sheriff Craig Nobles said. “Obviously they love what they do because they wouldn’t be doing it just for the pay.”
State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, invited Reps. Carolyn Hugley, Debbie Buckner and Calvin Smyre. All three listened and took notes as sheriffs and deputies pleaded their case.
Norris asked the representatives to support Senate Bill 254 and consider a statewide sales tax for the raises.
If passed, the bill would provide for a minimum annual salary for each deputy. The GSA is asking that peace officers be paid, at a minimum, the beginning salary of a Georgia State Patrol officer. The bill would also require the commissioner of public safety to some information about salaries for GSP employees; to provide for cost-of-living and performance increases for deputies whenever such increases are authorized for state employees; and to create a Local Law Enforcement Officer Compensation Commission.
Norris also asked the representatives to consider offering deputies, jailers and detention center officers the same health and benefits packages and retirement services, state officers have. He said jailers should be allowed to enroll in the Peace Officers Annuity and Benefit Fund of Georgia.
Sikes said Tuesday’s session was the third one in the state. He said it was important to host the luncheon in Williams’ home town, since Williams supported the measure since it was proposed.
Sikes said Williams has assisted the GSA throughout the process. He added he has received a lot of positive feedback since Tuesday and thinks the measure has gained the support of several senators.