The city of Oakwood is considering increasing starting pay for police officers by as much as 28% as the department grapples with a staffing shortage that has slashed its force by nearly half.
“We are at a point where we are — not at the breaking point, but we're at a point where we have to take action,” said City Manager B.R. White.
The shortage is serious enough that the Hall County Sheriff’s Office has stepped in to help respond to 911 calls during the night. It is not clear how long the arrangement might last, but White said they are mulling over the budget to make room for higher police pay, even before the start of the upcoming fiscal year for the city in January.
“A lot of what we're hearing when people leave is that they're going to better paying agencies or getting out of the profession for better pay,” said Oakwood Police Chief Tim Hatch.
The department is down 11 people, including officers, supervisors and investigators, and needs 24 for a full staff.
The entry-level salary for an officer in Oakwood is $35,402 – about one-third less than neighboring agencies. Gainesville pays a little over $50,000 after a 5-7% pay increase since last year. Hall County pays $50,310. In February, Flowery Branch upped its pay by $7,000 to $50,212. The city’s police chief, Chris Hulsey, complained of few applications and said they were “attracting some bad applicants” with troubling records.
Hatch said in February that the department “can get away with a lower starting salary” because it offers a “really competitive benefits package.”
Oakwood pays the full cost of medical insurance and retirement up to 25 years, after which it pays 90%; provides a new car every five years; and up to 480 hours of paid time off.
But it seems that better benefits are not enough to keep officers around or attract new ones. Many are opting for other agencies where salaries are higher.
“We already provide a benefits package that far exceeds most law enforcement agencies, but our pay scale, from what the applicants tell us, is a little low,” White said.
He said they are looking to increase the starting salary by $5,000 to $10,000, though they will likely do so in two phases, one this year and the other next year.
“I think if we were in the area of $40 to $45,000, we'd definitely be more competitive,” Hatch said. “All of the agencies around here are competing for the same people, and we're all trying to get those good qualified candidates with clean backgrounds and nothing chasing from another agency to come to us, no hidden skeletons in the closet.”
The city will not raise property taxes to pay for higher police salaries. Instead, the raises would be funded by the surge in property tax revenues.
“We don't want to have to raise the millage rate,” White said. Property values increased by 38% since last year, he said, “and we don't feel that we need to burden the taxpayers with additional taxes.”
Police funding accounts for one-third of the city’s $8.32 million budget. White said the pay raises will cost the city $150,0000 to $200,000.
Mayor Lamar Scroggs and other city council members did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Councilwoman Sheri Millwood did respond, but she was reluctant to discuss the issue.
“I know that our city manager B.R. White and Chief Hatch has it under control, and they're taking care of things,” Millwood said.
Any budget changes, however, must be approved by the council.
“Our citizens can rest assured that we are being protected without interruption,” Millwood said. “I have received no calls from anyone expressing a concern about our police department.”
Hatch doesn’t think the shortage will hinder their ability to police the city.
“I don't feel that any given scenario would come up that would cause an undue amount of alarm to our citizens,” adding that neighboring agencies can assist when needed.
However, he is particularly worried about officer safety.
“What is more concerning to me is when those really tense, rapidly evolving, dangerous situations occur,” he said. “There's a level of safety that is more and more difficult to maintain with the fewer people out there that are trained to do that. So if you have a really bad domestic situation, we don't want to send just one officer to that, and really sometimes two is not necessarily good enough.”