When Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal recently unveiled a 20 percent pay hike for state law enforcement officers, many Augusta commissioners knew what was coming: A request for salary increases for Richmond County deputies.
It’s not that the commissioners don’t want to give the deputies raises.
Almost all of the commissioners support such a move, but many don’t want to face the reality that an increase in law enforcement salaries will require a tax increase.
That’s something their constituents don’t want to hear.
But this week, Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree went before the Augusta Commission to make the case that, despite what it might mean for them politically, commissioners need to stand behind their deputies and increase their salaries.
“I’m asking for your consideration today, your discussion and eventually your courage to further invest in the future of your primary law enforcement agency,” Roundtree told the commissioners on Aug. 8. “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. 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 said the sheriff’s office is facing a “critical need” to provide salaries that will not only recruit new officers, but retain them because they face a very difficult job each and every day.
And, according to Roundtree, his department is getting the job done.
“There is always a difference between the perception of crime and actual crime,” Roundtree said, showing the commission the most recent crime statistics in Richmond County. “The reality of the fact is that since 2012, since we’ve taken office, your violent crime rate has dropped 36 percent in Richmond County. Your property crime has dropped 43 percent in Richmond County. These are real numbers as of 10 days ago.”
Those are statistics that the entire county “need to be proud of,” Roundtree said, adding that the public shouldn’t believe the rumors that Richmond County is not safe.
“Since 2012, crime has gone down in Richmond County,” Roundtree said. “That’s a fact.”
As a result of those improvements, Roundtree said his deputies deserve to be compensated because, right now, they are the lowest paid law enforcement officers in this region.
In a comparison of all six local law enforcement agencies, including the regional counties and North Augusta and Aiken Public Safety, Roundtree said Richmond County deputies handle five times the number of calls with 372,000 calls compared to the next largest sheriff’s office which is Columbia County.
But when it comes to compensation, Richmond County comes in dead last.
“You can see that Richmond County ranks last even though we have six times the call volume of the nearest sheriff’s office,” Roundtree said. “I think your sheriff’s officers need to be compensated for the job in which they’ve done and continued to do each day.”
Now, despite what some Augusta commissioners were fearing, Roundtree said he wasn’t expecting the county to provide his deputies with a 20 percent raise like the governor.
“I know that in our financial climate, the county in which we live in and the state in which we live in that it would impossible for me to come and ask you for a 20 percent increase.
I am not even going to entertain that,” Roundtree said. “I know we are not there and we can’t achieve that right now.” However, Roundtree had two proposals for commissioners. The first proposal would be a 10 percent increase, across the board, 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.
Meanwhile, Columbia County duties just got an additional raise in July and they are scheduled to get another one come Jan. 1, Roundtree said.
While the sheriff said he would be happy with the 10 percent, across-the-board raise, Roundtree would rather develop a salary plan that would provide incentives.
His second plan 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 only 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. And that could allow for Richmond County to retain more deputies and build an even stronger department, he said. Because, despite what some people believe, many deputies want to stay with Richmond County, he said.
“We make a difference. We save lives in Richmond County,” Roundtree said. “My deputies deliver babies, they jump into the canal, the jump into the river, this is what your deputies have done and continue to do on a daily basis. That is our sale’s pitch. We make a difference.”
Several of the commissioners said the sheriff made a very good argument for the increases, but other commissioners such as Wayne Guilfoyle were very concerned about where the money for such raises would could from.
“If I was to do a tax increase, which is really not in myself to do one, but I would do one for the sheriff’s department,” Guilfoyle said.
However, he also felt the county should look at other employees who have been patiently waiting for a salary study to be completed in order to possibly receive an increase.
“But I am not opposed to getting you your money, sir,” Guilfoyle told the sheriff.
Guilfoyle then turned to City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson and asked her the question of the day.
“How can we satisfy the request of the sheriff’s department?” he asked.
Jackson didn’t hesitate to provide the commissioner with an honest answer.
“I’m not sure how you do it without a tax increase, sir,” she said.
Many commissioners didn’t like the sound of that.
The time has come for the Augusta Commission to start making some tough decisions.
Stay tuned. This year’s budget debate will be a doozy.