End of legislative session, beginning of campaign over deputy pay

Bibb Sheriff's deputies wait outside a home on First Ave. for a search warrant after discovering a body, in this February 2017 file photo.
Bibb Sheriff's deputies wait outside a home on First Ave. for a search warrant after discovering a body, in this February 2017 file photo. bcabell@macon.com

Months after a 20 percent pay hike for state law enforcement officers, county sheriffs are making a major request of the Georgia Legislature: cash for deputies.

Some legislators have signed bills that would boost deputy pay, but any successful bill would be a very big state move into something that’s now a county responsibility. Deputies get their paychecks from counties, not the state.

“I don’t think that sheriffs are advocating that the state take over the control of local deputies. Normally when you pay the salaries, you have the control mechanism. I don’t think they’re asking for that. We’ll just wait and see what success they have with the legislation that they’re trying to advocate here in the General Assembly,” said Republican Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has said sheriffs need to speak with their county commissions.

Sheriffs say they have a hard time recruiting deputies, especially since state law enforcement officers — like state troopers and game wardens — just got a 20 percent raise.

Starting trooper pay tops $46,000. 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.

Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said that sheriffs have approached their county commissions, but especially in counties without much of a tax base, it’s tough.

“It is a fact that a lot of counties couldn’t afford this,” Norris said.

He also said that sheriffs’ offices are doing state business.

“Everything we do we’ve been told to do for the most part by the General Assembly,” Norris said.

There’s no estimate yet on how much it would cost to give deputies a raise to the realm of trooper pay.

State Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, has filed some legislation meant to get more pay for local law enforcement agencies. He said he is well aware his ideas would have a “substantial” cost.

His Senate Bill 254 says that deputies must be paid at least as much as starting troopers, and the cost would fall on counties. Georgia’s county association has denounced that as an unfunded mandate. But Williams has separately filed Senate Resolution 377, which would ask Georgia voters to authorize using state money to top up pay for law enforcement officers. One of his co-sponsors is a high-ranking Republican, Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer of Duluth.

“We’d set a minimum (salary) and any law enforcement officer that, according to their tax returns, is making less than that, the state would issue a refundable tax credit. So the funding would come from the state. That’s eventually where I’m going to take this,” Williams said.

So if an officer’s tax bill were less than the amount of the tax credit, the officer would get a check to bring them up to that minimum salary.

The details would be laid out in a companion bill and Williams said he would want it to cover both city and county officers.

However, it’s too late in this year’s legislative session for any major activity on either bill. Both Norris and Williams said they’d be working on the pay issue ahead of the next legislative session, which starts in January.

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee