Fearing an improving economy may cause deputies and firefighters to seek better-paying jobs, Richmond County’s sheriff and fire chief asked the Augusta Commission on Thursday for a 5 percent raise for all their employees.
The one-time salary increase – the first in five years for either department – could result in the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office’s 755 employees receiving an extra $1.8 million in their paychecks next year. The 335 workers at the Augusta Fire Department would receive a cumulative raise of $800,000.
Though the requests seemed to win some support during an informal budget work session, City Administrator Fred Russell said an across-the-board raise among all city personnel is the preferred way to handle pay increases.
However, he said, commissioners have in the past granted public safety workers raises due to the challenges of their work and the critical need for fire and police protection in the community.
“I understand every county employee wants to be compensated, but not everyone faces the challenges my officers do,” Sheriff Richard Roundtree said in making his case to the commission.
The sheriff said his employees are paid nearly 6.5 percent below the national Consumer Price Index.
Due to a lack of local jobs, the sheriff said he has been able to retain quality peace officer candidates from local colleges, universities and Fort Gordon, but a disparity in salary among police officers has led some to research and compare their pay to their peers’ online.
“It hurts morale,” Roundtree said in presenting a $61.3 million, “fluff free” budget to the commission.
Roundtree said the 2014 numbers are 6 percent higher than last year. But he said that was an inherited budget and despite the passed-on funding, he has put every supervisor through leadership training, upgraded data systems to enhance crime-fighting intelligence and started a four-officer gang task force.
The measures have led to a 60 percent decrease in the homicide rate, 50 percent decrease in traffic fatalities, and 15 percent decrease in rapes countywide, the sheriff said.
“We do not believe in fluff,” Roundtree said. “Like I said when I took office, we are going to show you a product.”
District 4 Commissioner Alvin Mason gave Roundtree’s budget his blessing, applauding the sheriff for drafting a comprehensive proposal that takes all the money allocated and shows the city “what we are getting for it.”
District 9 Commissioner Marion Williams also expressed support.
“I have heard that the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office is losing people fast,” Williams said. “You train them and then they leave for other places. We cannot have that.”
Williams’ observation held true as well for James, who presented a $23.5 million special-revenue budget to the commission.
“We have the best hiring and training process in the area,” James said. “So much that supervisors from the private sector are waiting for our recruits to complete their training, because our newly hired staff is screened for drugs and prepared to handle both firefighting and emergency medical tasks.”
“They’re taking them from us,” James said, pointing out to the commission that an Augusta firefighter makes a starting salary of $26,855.
That pales next to Atlanta and Savannah, each at $32,000, and Dekalb and Cobb counties, which pay $36,000 to $38,000.
The commission was not as vocal about James’ salary increase request, instead expressing support for updating outdated trucks and fire stations.