When it comes to requesting pay raises for his deputies, Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree isn’t playing around.
In fact, he’s taking his case to the streets.
Or at least the local airwaves.
Frequent listeners of local radio may have noticed an unusual ad that has been running the past few weeks in the Augusta market that was paid for by the sheriff.
This quick, 20-second ad about the 2018 budget might be brief, but it isn’t sitting well with several Augusta commissioners.
The ad begins by pointing out that the proposed 2018 budget does not include Roundtree’s request for salary increases for the sheriff’s deputies.
“The much-needed raises for law enforcement were not included in the 2018 budget. Shouldn’t these officers be equally compensated for the work they do?” an announcer in the ad asks. “Responding to over 370,000 service calls. Reducing violent crime over 30 percent and property crime over 40 percent. These officers are doing their job.”
But then the ad asks the public to take an active role in the 2018 budget process.
“So please ask your commissioners, what’s more important than the safety of our community?” the announcer asks. “Commissioners, you now have the opportunity to make things right.”
The ad ends with the message, “Paid for by Sheriff Richard Roundtree.”
After hearing the ad earlier this month, Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan said he felt like the sheriff was taking the wrong approach in pushing for the salary increases.
“I fully support law enforcement, but I really think it’s an issue that the sheriff, himself, should have had a conversation directly with us,” Hasan said. “And, truth be told, the money is not there to give the kind of raises that he wants. We don’t have it. But I think it is a disservice the way he is going about running those ads. I think it is classless in a way.”
One of the ads that Hasan recently heard on the radio seemed to openly criticize City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson.
“To go after the administrator knowing that the administrator did not have the money in the budget and now to turn the ads towards the commissioners without even having a conversation with us, he’s acting like he’s too good to even have a conversation with all of the commissioners,” Hasan said of Roundtree. “I think it is a real disservice. He may say that he came before the commission previously, but that’s not quite the same. Anybody with political astuteness knows that’s not the same. He needs to have a conversation with us.”
Earlier this year, the sheriff went before commissioners and told them that he was serious about the need for salary increases for his deputies in 2018.
Roundtree stood before the commission this summer and asked for their “courage” to properly fund the sheriff’s office.
“You will note that I used the word courage, and I did so intentionally because history has shown me that many times when this body has attempted to do for one agency, that some have felt that you had to do for all,” Roundtree told the commission in August. “And while I respect and support every department in this government and wish that such a thing was possible, today, our financial reality says that it is not at this time.”
Roundtree insisted the sheriff’s office is facing a “critical need” to provide salaries for deputies that will not only help recruit new officers, but also retain them.
Richmond County deputies handle at least five times the number of service calls each year compared to surrounding law enforcement departments, including Columbia County, which is the next-largest sheriff’s office in the area, Roundtree said.
However, when it comes to compensation, Richmond County comes in dead last with the lowest pay for law enforcement officers in this region at a starting salary of about $34,800 a year.
“I think your sheriff’s officers need to be compensated for the job in which they’ve done and continue to do each day,” Roundtree said. “Since 2012, crime has gone down in Richmond County. That’s a fact.”
Roundtree presented the commission with two proposals.
The first proposal would be a 10 percent increase, across-the-board raise for deputies, which would cost the county approximately $2.8 million.
“That would raise your starting salary up to $40,000, which we are still below North Augusta, but North Augusta does fire and police,” Roundtree said, adding that North Augusta Public Safety officers’ starting salary is approximately $42,100 a year.
While the sheriff said he would be happy with the 10 percent, across-the-board raises, Roundtree would rather develop a salary plan that would provide incentives.
His second proposal would give every deputy an 8 percent pay increase, that would bring the starting salary up to $39,559.
Once the deputy stayed on with the department an additional two years, his or her salary would be increased to $42,600. That plan would cost the county $2.74 million to implement.
An annual salary of $42,600 would be considered a “good salary” for law enforcement in this region, Roundtree said.
But before City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson even released her proposal for the 2018 budget, she told commissioners that the county did not have the current revenue to support the sheriff’s request.
“I’m not sure how you do it without a tax increase,” Jackson told commissioners in August.
Therefore, it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise to the sheriff when the proposed 2018 budget that was released this month didn’t include his total salary requests for deputies.
“This budget provides for $2.3 million for salary increases,” Jackson said, explaining that funding has been allocated for raises for employees paid through the general fund budget, which includes the sheriff’s deputies, but several other departments. “I would prefer for that to be $3 million to $4 million to cover everybody who is funded under the general fund.”
But the money is just not there, Jackson said.
In fact, Richmond County is suffering from a loss in revenue in several different areas, she said.
“This is the fourth budget process that I’ve been a part of. As you may recall, I came in at the tail end of 2014 as you all were deliberating the 2015 budget,” Jackson told the commission earlier this month. “Of those four budgets, I think this is the first time I am presenting you with one that I’m not sure that I like, myself.”
It is time for Augusta to begin to “adjust to new realities” in its annual budgets, she explained.
“It hit me as I went through our revenue sources, in particular, that we are going through a period of change, and we have got to adjust to what we would call ‘a new normal,’” Jackson said, adding that the electric franchise fees and tag ad valorem taxes have both decreased over the past few years in Richmond County. “Electric franchise fees have decreased pretty significantly. We were, two years ago, about $2 million more than what we are expected to get now. That’s probably something that we are going to have to get used to. That used to be a very reliable source of revenue, but it’s not going to be again.”
There is also a lot of uncertainty relating to the local option sales tax collections, she said.
“Last year, we experienced a $1.4 million decrease in that revenue source,” she said. “This year, it is looking a little bit more favorable, but it is not something that we can expect to grow every year as we had in previous years.”
Perhaps more disturbing than anything else is the projected growth in property taxes, she said.
“We are assuming a 1 percent growth rate in property taxes,” Jackson said. “Again, not what we would like it to be.”
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams was shocked to hear of such a low growth in property taxes in Richmond County.
“With all of the construction we’ve been doing and apartment buildings going up, there is a lot of growth around here,” Williams said. “Are you saying only 1 percent?”
Jackson explained that it was a very conservative estimate from the tax commissioner’s office.
“That is the best projection that I have from the tax office right now,” she said. “That is a safe number, and we did try to budget conservatively on this.”
Jackson said the county also is expecting only a 1 percent growth in the local option sales tax collections.
Despite these obstacles, Jackson said she was determined that one of the main goals of the 2018 budget would be to “invest in ourselves,” she said.
She wants to make sure that the requests for at least some raises throughout the county’s workforce be addressed.
“In terms of how we placed the priority of people over (county) operations, basically we made the decision to hold operations (budgets) completely flat for every department with the exception of things that absolutely, positively have to happen,” Jackson said. “Things like the elections. We can’t tell the Board of Elections you can’t have that $330,000 because they have got to run elections this year. Another thing is, we have got to make our $250,000 payment on the cyber parking deck.”
But Jackson said she is determined to get more money into the county employees’ pockets.
Earlier this year, Jackson asked the commission to fund a compensation study to review whether there were inequities within the county’s pay scale.
Archer Company, the firm hired to conduct the compensation study, will present its final recommendations to the commission on Nov. 7.
“At that point, we will have the written document that shows us exactly what the results of the study are and their recommendations for how we move forward,” Jackson said.
Richmond County currently has a workforce of 2,842 people with a general fund budget of $153 million for 2017.
Jackson has suggested reducing the current workforce (mainly through the elimination of vacant positions in the county) to approximately 2,817 employees with a general fund budget of $155 million for 2018.
However, some of the vacant positions cannot be eliminated just to help reduce the budget, she said.
“Some of these vacancies are open because the jobs don’t pay enough,” Jackson said. “If we were to look at animal control right now and the number of vacancies that they have there, they can’t keep anybody in those positions because you can’t keep anybody for $21,000 a year to catch dogs.”
Jackson also pointed out that the sheriff’s office regularly has between 30 to 90 vacant positions at any given time, so each position must be individually evaluated in order to determine if it should be eliminated.
“Who is going to be in charge of prioritizing what’s needed and what’s not?” Augusta Commissioner Andrew Jefferson asked.
Jackson said she hoped that the commissioners would provide some guidance in that regard because the county will be dealing with vacant positions, lapsed salaries, the results of the compensation study, as well as requests for raises.
“Well, how are we going to do that?” Jefferson said, looking around at his colleagues. “We have lapsed salaries, we are going to do the compensation study, we have increases in some salaries and we are going to use the savings to fill some of the shortfalls? It seems like we are playing spin the bottle with the money.”
Jackson couldn’t deny that Jefferson accurately described many of the frustrations found within the proposed 2018 budget.
“That would illustrate why I’m not happy with what I just presented you, sir,” Jackson said. “You are absolutely right. That is what the game is.”
Following last week’s budget meeting, several commissioners said they realize the uphill battle they are facing with budget, particularly regarding the request for pay raises by the sheriff.
“I don’t think it is going to be possible. Not that we don’t need to give the deputies raises — we just don’t have the money,” Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said. “We would have to raise taxes in order to give them the salary increases he’s asking for. I support them 100 percent, but we just don’t have the money to do it. And, if you look at public safety, you have to look at all of them. What about the fire department? What about the marshal’s department? We can’t just pick and choose.”
As far as Roundtree’s ads asking the public to call commissioners about the proposed budget, Williams believes the sheriff crossed the line.
“I thought that was very unprofessional in my opinion,” Williams said. “In one ad, he focused on the administrator. The ad he ran said the administrator needs to step up to the plate. She doesn’t make that decision. The commission makes that decision. But the sheriff focused on the administrator, and that put a bad taste in people’s mouths about her. I thought that was wrong. I thought that was insensitive, and I didn’t appreciate it at all.”
However, some commissioners felt that the sheriff was just doing what’s best for the deputies in his department.
“I think it is a good play,” said Augusta Commissioner Dennis Williams. “I think it’s a good way to prove your point.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy agreed that the sheriff had every right to run the radio ads in support of his employees.
“I think he is doing a good job advocating for his deputies, and I don’t have a problem with that,” Fennoy said. “But I support the recommendation from our administrator.”
“I think the sheriff does a good job, and I think he is doing an excellent job trying to get everything he can for his deserving deputies, but we have 2,800 deserving employees. All of them do a great job, and all of them, as far as I’m concerned, are important.”
Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom said his main priority is to help the administrator find realistic reductions to the budget so that the county can fund several necessary expenditures, such as increasing the salaries of the deputies and other county employees.
“I don’t know that I necessarily agree with the method that the sheriff is doing with the ads, but I understand it,” Frantom said. “And two wrongs don’t make a right, so I’m not going hold that against him. But I think that we’ve got to find the money, and I’m going to continue to dig into this budget and see what we can do to cut and make the tough decisions.”
“We need to look at lapsed salaries and we need to look at positions that maybe have not been filled for multiple years and let’s eliminate them to find the money we need.”
Clearly, the deputies deserve a raise, but the commission also has to be realistic about the other expenses the county is facing, Augusta Commissioner Andrew Jefferson said.
“They do deserve it, there is no doubt about that, but it is a matter of affordability,” Jefferson said. “At the same time, we have thousands of other employees that are employed by the city, and we need to make sure they are taken care of as well. So it is a difficult job.”
Augusta Commissioner Sammie Sias said both sides just need to stick to being professional and do what’s right for the county.
“We are doing everything that we can to accommodate the sheriff,” Sias said. “It may not be giving him everything he needs at this time and at this point, but we will take care of his men. We’ll do it.”