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Smaller cities in Hall use benefits to lure police staff
After Sheriff's Office, Gainesville Police raise pay, other forces find different ways to recruit candidates
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Patrol officer Bret Sweeney files reports at the Oakwood Police Department in Oakwood, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

After the two biggest law enforcement agencies in Hall County recently announced pay raises, leaders of the smaller police forces had different reactions to the news.

“The officers are in need of some additional compensation from an hourly point of view,” Flowery Branch Police Chief David Spillers said. “The benefits are there, but if we expect to remain competitive and we expect to retain the quality candidates that we have, we’re going to have to be more competitive on the hourly.”

The Flowery Branch force has a starting hourly pay rate roughly $1 per hour less than its Gainesville Police and Hall County Sheriff’s Office counterparts, for a total salary of $36,680 per year.

Gainesville Police announced pay increases at the beginning of the month, which raised starting pay for certified officers to $40,010.

Sheriff Gerald Couch made his pitch for pay raises to the commissioners Monday, and they were approved Thursday. The county’s 2.5 percent pay increase would start deputies at just under $40,000, according to Couch.

Oakwood Police Chief Randall Moon said he is not bothered by the developments. His department’s starting pay is about $32,000, but the agency has lured away officers from Gwinnett and Hall counties.

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Oakwood Police Chief Randall Moon works at the city’s Police Department on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Moon says the department’s insurance and benefits have helped it lure officers to the small-town force. - photo by David Barnes

To Spillers, Oakwood has the “mack daddy” in terms of insurance and benefits.

“People see the money, and that’s all they go for is the money. They don’t realize how important benefits are to raising a family,” Moon said.

Though both chiefs agree it’s a multitude of factors, Moon said one of the draws has been the insurance program.

Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said $230,000 was allocated in the fiscal year 2018 budget for the police department’s health insurance, which fully covers employee and family plans without employee contributions. Combined with the $248,000 spent on police officers’ retirement, the benefits make up 38 percent of the total police expenditures for fiscal year 2018.

“I could cut my benefits to be the same as Gainesville and Hall County and I can start out the same as them, but you’re still not going to make the money that you’ll make now,” Moon said.

Flowery Branch paid $804.59 per employee per month to cover employee medical insurance; about 40 percent of the employee’s family coverage premiums are covered by the city.

Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks said the current plan for county deputies involves employee contributions for both employee and family medical insurance coverage.

“Going forward, the sheriff wants to examine some possible options to help lessen the cost to employees of insurance plans,” Wilbanks said.

Brown said the city allows for retirement when age and years of service equal 75. The payout is based on the average of the employee’s best five years, paying 3.6 percent per year up to 25 years. Moon said some of his employees are retiring after age 50 with 90 percent of what their salary was at the time.

“(Salaries) are lower than what you see with Gainesville and Hall County, but I think our benefits package more than compensates for that,” Brown said.

Retirement with Flowery Branch is a defined benefit program, where employees annually take 2 percent of their final average earnings multiplied by their years of service.

Both municipalities have a five-year vesting period for retirement.

Like all agencies, finding recruits has continued to be difficult, Moon said. His issue has been “finding mature folks who know what your benefit package means to them,” he said.

Oakwood has 16 employees and Flowery Branch has 18 in municipalities with a smaller call volume than in the bigger jurisdictions.

Spillers said some are drawn to the small-town atmosphere because it may be reminiscent of their own upbringing or represent a change of pace.

The relationships between citizen and police mean people “feel they can call upon us for more than just the occasional emergency,” he said.

“They know they can call upon the officer they see every day just to report something suspicious or to let them know they are going to be out of town for a few days,” Spillers said.

Amid a housing boom in the South Hall area, Flowery Branch Mayor Mike Miller previously told The Times the population could grow to about 12,000 people by 2022. According to the U.S. Census, the city’s population as of July 1, 2016, was 7,073.

The Carl Vinson Institute of Government performed a pay study before the Gainesville and Hall County raises were implemented

“Hopefully, our city council will act to implement the wage study by Carl Vinson Institute submitted for their consideration,” Spillers said.

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