State lawmakers aim to help local forces boost officer pay
Legislature works on formula to help agencies like Hall, Gainesville ease retention problems

While the state General Assembly may begin looking at ways to increase law enforcement pay and benefits, local leaders are trying to take a quicker route to stem force retention issues.

“We’re requiring these individuals to protect us, to keep us safe, to patrol and to put themselves in harm’s way, and as a result of that, they’re putting their lives on the line each and every day ... It’s incumbent upon, I think, everyone to ensure that these individuals can take care of their families,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said.

Cagle co-chaired the Compensation of Police and Sheriffs Task Force, a group of municipal and county government officials finishing its report Dec. 18.

Citing a statistic of 3,200 local law enforcement officers having families on food stamps, Cagle said the task force recommended legislation requiring local governments to create localized pay scales for officers.

“We will be creating a grant program that they could use to fill the gap as it pertains to compensation for local government officers,” he said.

Cagle said legislators would pursue a $7 million fund from existing state resources for the grant process.

The issue includes two types of law enforcement agencies: Some that don’t have the tax base or the annual revenues to pay officers adequately, and those trying to stay competitive with neighboring municipalities.

“Certainly there’s not going to be exact parity across the state and across every community, but it’s important that the officers and the local elected officials are working in tandem to ensure that there’s an adequate salary that is being paid for the services that are being rendered,” Cagle said.

Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said agencies for years have requested one of the recommendations by the task force: a study on a 1 percent tax on auto insurance policies to fund the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund. A similar one exists for homeowners’ insurance policies for the Fire Fighters Pension Fund.

The benefit fund is a retirement plan in which leaders have encouraged younger officers to enroll because it is transferable from agency to agency, Martin said.

Other recommendations regarding the benefit fund include studies into a monthly contribution increase as well as making it sustainable for county jail officers to participate.

“They go through the same training, same responsibilities but they’re denied having access to this retirement, and I think that would be a tremendous asset,” Sheriff Gerald Couch said of jailers excluded from the benefit fund.

More than 100 jailers at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office would be eligible if the change is made, Couch said.

“The issue of decreased revenue from fine add-ons should be addressed by requiring counties operating Pretrial Diversion Programs to include add-ons that contribute directly to the POAB and the Peace Officer and Prosecutor Training Fund,” according to the report. “Legislation will be proposed in January.”

Attrition is a growing problem for both Gainesville and Hall County. Couch said 73 employees — including 37 deputies and 25 jailers — left in 2017 and only 56 new employees were hired.

In 2016 and 2015, the number of new Sheriff’s Office hires exceeded departures, Couch said.

Since the 20 percent pay increase for state law enforcement was included in the 2018 fiscal budget, both the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police have seen a decrease in sworn and certified applicants to their respective departments.

“We have several that want to go to the academy, but that’s a tremendous cost to the city and six to eight months to be operational,” Gainesville Police Deputy Chief Jay Parrish said.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association submitted their own recommendations to the task force, which were added as an addendum to the report. The respective ideas included making a $5,000 state supplement per officer for certain qualified agencies, creating child care vouchers and education discounts.

“It doesn’t mean that issues like that cannot be pursued at a later date, but at this juncture, it did not have enough support to be in the recommendations,” Cagle said of the added recommendations.

Gainesville city officials announced they were giving police officers a raise by shifting money approved for quarterly retention bonuses to increase salaries instead.

Starting pay for a certified officer is now $40,010.88, up from $35,543. Gainesville City Council approved a quarterly incentive for the current fiscal year, which gave $1,000 to any officer who stayed with the department for the whole quarter. No additional funds are being used since funds were already approved for the bonuses.

Couch said the city’s decision has not affected his plans, as he has worked for the past few months on developing a plan to address pay and benefits at the sheriff’s office.

The sheriff anticipates making a public presentation before the county Board of Commissioners in the coming weeks.

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