Living costs, comparable pay driving referendum petition
By FAITH HUFFMAN, News-Telegram News Editor
June 30, 2008 - The need to match rising living costs and area pay scales for law enforcement agencies is the impetus behind Hopkins County Law Enforcement Association's petition for a pay referendum, according to HCLEA members.
"We're doing a petition drive for raises," HCLEA President Lewis Tatum said. "Last year, there were no cost-of-living increases. It's very hard to keep good employees. No one in the county got cost-of-living increases last year. That hurt everyone with everything going up but salaries."
Hopkins County Judge Cletis Millsap said that the commissioners court voted to fund longevity awards of $75 per year of service in the form of an extra check instead of a cost of living raise for all county employees last year.
"We worked on giving everyone with two years $150, for 10 years $750 and 20 years $1,500, with it capped at 25 years," Millsap said. "This went to everybody across the board. After Thanksgiving, we gave them the extra check so that would give everybody three checks before Christmas."
Tatum said that while the officers appreciated the extra funding, it ultimately will cost them money instead of adding to their pocketbook. The longevity award was a one-time paycheck, whereas the cost-of-living raise would have gone toward their base pay, which would still be reflected on their checks in each successive year, he countered.
"We're just a training ground for other agencies. We've got to put our employees first. As it is, the first chance they get, our officers go to other agencies. We've got to get better pay, give our officers a reason to stay," Tatum said.
Since 1997, the sheriff's office has lost 48 employees to other agencies, according to HCSO records.
Records obtained from the county auditor's office and sheriff's office show that since Oct. 1, 2006, the department has had at least six deputies quit, including four corporals.
The county judge said that most have gone to city police departments, with whom all counties are hard pressed to compete because cities generally have more revenue resources coming in which allow them to offer more per officer.
Since October of last year, two corporals left HCSO to take patrol jobs with Sulphur Springs Police Department, two other deputies and at least one jailer are also employed elsewhere, and the DARE officer/patrol deputy will be leaving at the end of the summer to work for a school district.
Between Oct. 1, 2006 and Oct. 1, 2007, one deputy quit to take a job with Greenville Police, and a deputy and jailer took jobs with Hunt County Sheriff's Office. Also, a corporal took a patrol job with Wood County Sheriff's Office, where the beginning deputy pay is about $33,000 a year, according to HCLEA information.
In fact, all except one of the county's patrol deputies, those with no rank, were hired in 2005 or later; that deputy was employed by HCSO in 2001. Four were hired in 2006, three in 2007 and two this year. Of HCSO's three corporal deputies (who receive no extra pay for the officer position) one was hired in 2004 and two others went on the HCSO payroll in 2005, according to department records.
In the jail, the records clerk and administrator are the only members of the staff who have been on the payroll more than eight years. Two jailers were hired as far back as 2000, another was hired one year later. The rest of the jail staff were employed in 2004 or later.
The pay scale for a slick-sleeve deputy straight out of the academy in Hopkins County is currently $29,505. The HCLEA referendum would raise the pay for new deputies to $33,930.75. On average, a beginning jailer takes home $23,996 annually. With the petition, HCLEA hopes voters will approve raising that amount to $27,595.40. Dispatchers' salaries are set at $24,592, with the chief dispatcher earning $28,949; the referendum would raise base dispatcher pay to $28,280.80, and the dispatch supervisor would get $33,291.35.
The HCSO receptionist's salary is $21,469 with the criminal investigation secretary getting $28,206. The referendum would increase the receptionist pay to $24,689.35 and the CID secretary's to $32,436.90. The department's administrative assistant, who has been with the department for almost 19 years, earns $31,918; that pay would increase to $36,705.70.
Deputies are looking for similar increases of around 15 percent. For example, a deputy-sergeant currently earns $35,000 annually. Under the proposed pay scale, the base salary for the deputy-sergeant position would increase to $42,269.40. The chief investigator pay would rise from $38,000 to $46,000 if the referendum is passed.
"We did a referendum several years ago. At that time the commissioners promised that we would never have to do this again, that they'd keep up with the cost-of-living pay." Tatum said.
"Small increases annually add up over time and economically are more feasible than big jumps like we're asking for. We haven't gotten what we were promised, so now we're asking for it," said Toney Hurley, with HCLEA. "We put our lives on the line dealing with people we put in prison and jail - murderers, rapists and the like. When they're taken in custody, you want someone pretty professional doing the job."
"We're sorry it's come to this," Tatum said, "but from all aspects it seems the Commissioners Court wants us to do a referendum. When we've talked to them one-on-one, they've seemed to want it. They've told us they can't do it, they've beat around the bush and put us off. We just want an answer, some help. At one point, I hope they'll take a look at their employees across the county instead of focusing so much on more buildings. They won't do any good if they don't have employees to staff them. We want this to get on the ballot in November."
"I don't know anything about it," Precinct 3 Commissioner Don Patterson said when asked about the petition for raises. "I guess the guys are doing what they feel they've got to do. When we've visited with them, it's to find out where we are. They mentioned the possibility [of a referendum], but as far as I know, they've not met with us as a group. As far as [making an official court decision] about raises, I haven't. ... As far as I'm concerned, I've not said one way or the other."
Patterson said that the court is still in the first phases of the budget process and basic figures for county needs are still being tallied. But, no decision has been reached by the court regarding salaries for sheriff's employees. He said that during a previous budget work session, topics such as fuel costs and the need for more officers were discussed between the commissioners and sheriff, but no pay raises.
"They've not come to us and talked to us as a court," Millsap said. "We'd welcome the opportunity to talk with them. We'll negotiate at court if they decide to meet with us, to see what we can match and what they'll accept. They'll have to present it to the court, to make a proposal. If we can't reach an agreement, they have the right to petition to take it to referendum. We set the budget on Oct. 1. The vote wouldn't be until November after the budget."
According to the judge, the Commissioners Court is expected to approve a 5 percent cost-of-living increase for all county employees during a future budget session. He also noted that base pay doesn't take into account other benefits county employees receive which adds considerably to the amount the county spends per employee, and that cost-of-living raises and benefits such as insurance are offered based on "what the market allows."
The county judge said while they'd like to give all county employees a large raise, including the deputies and sheriff's personnel who "do an outstanding job for the county, as do firefighters, clerk's staff, precinct workers, maintenance personnel and all county staff," doing so at the asked rate would likely be more than the county budget can accommodate.
He also said that if the 5 percent cost-of-living increase is granted, and the referendum were to pass, the county would have to fund a 20 percent increase in pay for all HCSO employees.
However, HCLEA members said that according to their understanding of the law permitting the referendum, they'd only be allowed a 15 percent total increase for the year, not 15 percent in addition to the total pay. So if the 5 percent cost of living is approved, the referendum could only add 10 percent to that amount.
The county judge said that should the referendum be granted and pass, the county would likely have to then go back and borrow money to give the other county employees a comparable raise. Doing so would likely require a loan or taking money away from the fund balance and other designated funds.
"If we give 15 percent to them, we'll have to give it to all. Everyone's been asking for a raise. We want it to be equitable, fair across the county," Millsap said.
"We'd also like to here from the public on what they'd like us to do. If we have the referendum, we'll have to look at additional revenue sources to make it work. We'd like to know what people feel like in the public sector," Millsap said.
HCLEA has until Aug. 11 to collect 2,175 signatures. They're hoping for a solid 3,000 signatures to show public approval to put it to the vote.