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A penny for our cops?
Georgia Sheriff's Association looks to get a sales tax started to bolster local law enforcement pay
Craig Nobles
Long County Sheriff Craig Nobles

The sheriffs in Liberty and Long counties are joining counterparts around the state in seeking raises for local law enforcement officers in response to a plan by Gov. Nathan Deal giving state law enforcement officers a 20-percent raise.

And instead of putting it on the backs of property owners, the Georgia Sheriff’s Association is proposing a sales tax to pay for the raises.

The issue of unequal pay came to light last fall, when Deal proposed the 20 percent pay hike for roughly 3,300 state law enforcement officers.

The proposal would cost about $79 million annually.

While Deal’s proposal still has to be approved by state lawmakers, the governor is so confident it will pass he included the 20 percent pay increase in paychecks effective Jan. 1.

That means entry level salary for a Georgia State Patrol trooper will raise from approximately $38,000 to around $46,000. The raise will be retroactive, once approved.

State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said he expects the proposal to find favor among legislators, though they still have to find the money.

 “This is the Governor’s recommendation… Which we will probably pass,”  Williams said, noting lawmakers have yet to pass the midyear amended budget for 2017 and the fiscal year 2018 budget. “We will look at the governor’s recommendation… Those raises have to be funded before they are given. The money hasn’t been appropriated.”

Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes supports the raises, but said the increase will make it difficult for local agencies to retain experienced law enforcement personnel.

“I absolutely support those officers getting a raise… They deserve it,” Sikes said. “On the other hand, local county and city officers deserve it as well.”

Sikes said the pay disparity will mean local officers will look to move on to state agencies as soon and as often as possible. He added the situation is not unique to Liberty County and is of concern to all local level law agencies across the state.

“Our very best officers almost always leave local law enforcement agencies after a few years, and go on to better pay and benefits with state and federal agencies,” Sikes said. He also pointed to a report by the Georgia Sheriff’s Association in November. That survey, with 76 of 159 sheriffs reporting, showed the loss of more than 500 deputies to state agencies in the past 10 years.

“I had concerns about the differences (in pay) and how it effects the local people from the very beginning,” Williams said explaining that local law enforcement is funded at the city and county level, not the state. “That (a possible pay increase) has to come out of local revenue and that puts quite a bit of stress on the local budget process.”

Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown said he is in support of raises for law enforcement officers, “who put their lives on the line on a daily basis,” but it would be a burden on local government.

“Right now if we had to meet the increase we would need to come up with $290,000,” Brown said.

Sikes agreed.

“There is no way we could do that at the local level without placing the burden on taxpayers… This needs to be funded through the state,” Sikes said.

 Hinesville Police Chief George Stagmeier agreed that Deal’s proposal could make retaining officers at the local level difficult. He said he would like to see the state address the issue of equal pay.

The Georgia Sheriffs Association has plans to introduce the Local Law Enforcement Compensation Reform proposal to the General Assembly to help local agencies statewide.

“It is the position of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association to call upon the governor and the General Assembly to enact laws during 2017 which will ensure that all city police officers, county police officers, county and city jailers, deputy sheriffs and sheriffs receive minimum salaries competitive to those offered to state officers,” the LECR proposal states.

According to the proposal, the Georgia Sheriffs Association will seek to introduce legislation mandating the minimum starting salary of all full-time certified peace officers be equal to the annual compensation received by an entry level GSP trooper.

They also want to introduce legislation mandating the minimum starting salary of all full-time jailers to be equal to annual starting salaries of correctional officers employed by the Georgia Department of Corrections.

In order to pay for the increase the GSA will push legislation to create a one-cent sales tax with the collected revenue going exclusively to pay the cost of salaries and benefits for local officers.

They are also seeking an income tax credit for jailers and detention officers who have earnings less than $40,000 a year.

Long County Sheriff Craig Nobles is in favor of the measure.

“We are still mandated under the state laws for training and qualifications as peace officers… We are mandated to have the same qualifications as state law enforcement officers,” Nobles said. “We need the money too.”

Stagmeier, Sikes and Nobles point out that local officers are the ones who respond to 911 calls at the local level. Nobles added that it was local law enforcement making roughly 85 percent of criminal arrests around the state every year compared to state patrol officers.

“We are the ones out here that are fighting crime… But it is going to be hard for us to retain people and I believe it is going to affect the quality of people we hire to do our job,” Nobles added.

“Also it would be impossible for small counties like Long County, which are poor counties, to be able to pay those salaries (at the local level),” Nobles added. “It is going to have to come from the state.”

Sikes and Stagmeier had a similar sentiment.

“I would very much be in favor of our General Assembly looking at a way to increase local law enforcement’s pay as well,” Stagmeier said. “And if we can’t match it at least be competitive.”

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