Let’s do the right thing the hard way

Consensus for deputy raises may be endangered by quick tax hike

A remarkable consensus has formed remarkably quickly: Richmond County desperately needs to pay its sheriff’s deputies more.

 

The only question now is how.

We vote for the more difficult method – finding the money in the existing Augusta-Richmond County budget – rather than the “easy button” approach of raising taxes.

At just under $35,000 a year, a Richmond County deputy makes less than newcomers at four neighboring county agencies, and even less than the Richmond County Marshal’s Office tasked with serving court papers, enforcing local ordinances and providing government building security.

New deputies in Burke County earn over $37,000; Aiken County, over $38,000; Columbia County, over $39,000; and North Augusta Public Safety (whose officers also provide fire and emergency medical) over $42,000.

At the same time, there’s no disputing that Richmond County officers carry a heavier load: 372,342 calls last year alone.

It’s not only unfair and demoralizing, but it’s just plain bad for business too: Although a government entity, the sheriff’s department competes with other agencies for the best personnel. So its salaries need to be competitive, which they’re not.

This may be true in other parts of the government as well – the county is in the midst of a $100,000 comprehensive compensation study. But there is no other agency of government that the public relies on so heavily for our safety.

City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson seemed to dismiss out of hand the notion of reprioritizing any current funds for deputy pay. “I’m not sure how you do it without a tax increase,” she said.

That’s funny, because other folks are already chiming in with ideas on how to do it.

“Unlike Jackson,” writes Chronicle columnist Sylvia Cooper, “I think they should look to cutting some things before they start raising property taxes, beginning with her office.”

Cooper figures cutting salaries, perks and non-essential personnel in the administrator’s office alone could free up half a million of the $2.7 million needed for deputy raises. The mayor could forgo the $100,000 office expense increase in his budget.

More cuts on the assessor’s board, and the taxation of five “church-owned apartment complexes the state Department of Revenue says are ineligible for tax-exempt status” could add up to over $200,000, Cooper says.

Commissioners could cut down on travel and memberships – such as joining either the national association of counties or cities, but not both, she says. Cooper even suggests the community could cut back on the number of commissioners, from 10 to four or three. Like that will happen.

Whether Cooper’s cuts make sense or get traction, her point is a valid one: There is always room to cut. Ask those of us in the private sector!

Only when the city has turned over every budget rock should it throw up its hands and say a tax increase is the only way.

The truth is, most of this community will likely vote for a law enforcement tax to bolster deputy pay – if we truly believe there’s no other way.

The county will lose a lot of that support if it turns to a tax hike as a first resort, and doesn’t make a good faith effort to find efficiencies in other areas of the budget.

The consensus to do something is here. Don’t blow it.

 

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