Dozens of Georgia sheriffs paid visits to the state Capitol last week, visiting the people who write the laws that they and their staffs will enforce. The sheriffs have been telling lawmakers that counties will lose good officers if pay doesn’t rise.
A jailer starts work, on average, at about $25,300 per year, according to the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. Average deputy sheriff pay starts at $29,900.
But sheriffs have another number on their minds: since a 20 percent raise for officers at state agencies went into effect this year, state troopers’ base pay now tops $46,000.
The state has long paid better than local agencies, said Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese. But the troopers’ raise is high enough that he said he and other sheriffs are worrying more about recruiting and retaining staff.
“We’re going to be losing the best of our best. That’s a concern of ours,” said Deese, who’s also president of the board of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.
Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said his department pays more than some others but that “all of us are having issues finding good people.”
But state legislators don’t set pay for deputies. That’s been up to counties.
“If we were to do something different, then this would be a substantial change from how things have always been regarding how we compensate our county-level employees,” said state Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, who is a retired state trooper and a former county commissioner. He said he’s heard some ideas from sheriffs, but not any that he thinks would have broad support under the Gold Dome.
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, knows his sheriffs are making a big request. “We’re looking for the will, we’re trying to establish, help people down here understand how … we’re headed toward (a) crisis situation,” Norris said.
Norris said he expects that any change would be a multiyear process. The year’s annual legislative session is already halfway finished.
“We’re not experts on revenue-generating and I don’t know that it’s our responsibility to figure that part out, but we, just as a suggestion, we suggested a one penny sales tax statewide dedicated to local officer compensation,” Norris said.
But the state House’s top lawmaker said sheriffs need to go to their county courthouses.
“A number of sheriffs have done that. That’s the proper forum,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.
“They’re coming up here asking this General Assembly to raise taxes. That’s not our proposal, that’s their proposal,” Ralston said. “I guess they think it’s easier to come up here and ask the General Assembly to pass a tax increase that we’re not going to even entertain. It’s easier to do that than it is to sit down with their county commissions … the proper way to address it.”
On the other side of the state Capitol building, Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is endorsing Senate Bill 155. That would create a commission to collect data about law enforcement salaries and benefits from the hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the state.
Paul Chapman serves in a courthouse, as chairman of the Crawford County Commission. He said the state officers’ raise was “above what the norm would be.”
Chapman said that last year Crawford County raised starting salaries for sworn officers by more than $1 an hour.
He also said said his county’s budget comes to about $6 million, of which about 30 to 40 percent goes to the sheriff’s department. A law enforcement raise could have a big impact on that.
“Everybody wants more money but … somebody’s got to figure out where it comes from,” Chapman said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong title for David Ralston. He is House Speaker.
Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee