AIKEN — Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt stood before the Aiken County Council on Tuesday with a proposal to raise the starting salaries of his deputies, seemingly with the support of the entire county backing him.
Residents and uniformed deputies jammed into council chambers at the new Aiken County Government Center on University Parkway, taking part in a public hearing on an ordinance to adopt the county’s operating budget for the 2015 fiscal year.
Hunt requested a millage increase of four mils, which would generate enough revenue to raise salaries while allowing the department to fund its own performance evaluations for the first time in more than five years and create a career-path program for deputies, he said.
The proposal follows concern that Aiken County Sheriff’s Office salaries aren’t as competitive as their counterparts. Currently, the starting salary sits at $31,717, which lags behind sheriff’s offices in both Richmond and Columbia counties.
Hunt had little convincing to do Tuesday, as every speaker – resident and council member alike – threw support behind a salary increase, and as the ordinance easily passed second reading.
“What would you pay to have a trained officer to come to your home and help you in a time of emergency?” said Councilwoman LaWana McKenzie. “I don’t think anyone could put a price on it.”
Shelly Sheppard Fulmer, of Aiken, said she is in favor of increasing taxes if it means greater safety. Fulmer’s husband, Sgt. Jason Sheppard, was struck and killed by an SUV in 2006 while directing traffic.
“The amount of money they get paid doesn’t compare to them putting their life on the line on a daily basis,” she said. “I will pay taxes to be safe in this county.”
Hunt isn’t alone in his concern over salaries, as officials in Richmond County say they share the same concerns.
Currently, Georgia P.O.S.T.-certified officers receive a starting salary of $31,880.94 at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, according to its Web site. The salary increases to $33,349.68 annually after one year and $34,592 after two.
Having lost about 225 deputies in the past three years, according to Chief Deputy Pat Clayton, boosting starting salaries is an issue that remains in the forefront of budget negotiations. The department hasn’t increased salaries in more than five years, he said.
“It’s not just a matter of low pay,” he added. “When you don’t receive a salary increase in five years, it makes you feel like you’re not valued.”
At last count, Clayton said, the sheriff’s office had more than 50 positions open for deputy sheriffs, deputy jailers and records personnel. While many deputies leave to pursue jobs that might boost their careers, he said, receiving higher pay is often brought up in exit interviews.
“It’s a constant battle,” Clayton said. “We’re working with (human resources) to fill the positions as fast as we can.”
Thanks to a salary boost in January, deputies in Columbia County enjoy a better starting salary than those in Richmond and Aiken counties. Sheriff’s Capt. Donna Dunham said deputies now earn $15.24 an hour and $34,076.64 annually.
Once officers complete a probationary period, they receive a five-percent increase, she said.
In the meantime, Capt. Steve Smith said the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t discussed increasing salaries again.
“Certainly in the future, but as of right now there have been no negotiations,” he said.
As for Aiken County, Hunt said there will be at least two more budget work sessions before council will have third and final reading of the ordinance.
He said he isn’t too concerned with how the council will vote.
“I think we have some good support from the citizens and that was very evident tonight,” he said. “And I believe council listened to the citizens. They’ve got some hard decisions to make.”