Prompted by the threat of a lawsuit from Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength, Augusta commissioners voted Monday to give sworn sheriff's officers 4 percent raises for the rest of the year and another 4 percent in January.
The raises for 500 officers will go into effect beginning with the pay period that follows the Nov. 1 Augusta Commission meeting.
Commissioners voted for the raises after a closed-door meeting, during which they discussed a letter from the sheriff's attorney, James Ellison of Burnside Wall LLP.
Jim Wall of that firm served as city attorney for 10 years.
Mr. Ellison said it is imperative the commission address the salary problems within the sheriff's department. About 90 employees have left the department this year for better-paying jobs in the private sector or with other governmental agencies.
There are currently 34 vacancies in Mr. Strength's office, according to Augusta City Attorney Stephen Shepard.
The raises will cost $75,000 through year's end and will be paid from money that was budgeted for salaries of officers who have left the agency.
Mr. Ellison also asked commissioners to approve another 4 percent raise in January along with those budgeted for all other city employees. The annual cost of the 8 percent increase will be about $1.5 million, Mr. Shepard said.
"The county commission has the obligation to fund the budget in a constitutionally adequate and reasonable amount," Mr. Shepard said.
"So we have the legal duty to comply with that so we do not have litigation as was, I'd say, threatened."
The sheriff also has the authority to have an attorney to represent him, Mr. Shepard said.
Low salaries have created a problem that is threatening the sheriff's ability to perform his constitutional and statutory duties under Georgia law, Mr. Ellison states in the letter.
"While the sheriff would like to avoid any and all conflicts with the commission, if this problem is not addressed there may be no choice other than to seek the intervention of the courts," he wrote.
The sheriff is an elected constitutional county officer and not an employee of the commission.
Although his budgets and accounts are subject to the authority of the commission, the board's decisions with regard to his budget may be judicially reviewed for abuse of discretion, Mr. Ellison states, citing legal cases in Dougherty County and Calhoun, Ga.
Mr. Ellison stated that the exodus of personnel from the sheriff's office is reaching a point at which the sheriff will "no longer be able to perform his constitutional duties."
Commissioner Bobby Hankerson said the entry-level pay of officers in surrounding law-enforcement agencies is higher than in Richmond County and that once officers are trained at Augusta taxpayers' expense they leave to take jobs at those agencies.
"Columbia County is getting some of them," he said. "The state patrol is getting some of them. ..."
In addition, retirement benefits in the city's 1998 deferred compensation package are almost nonexistent, Mr. Hankerson said.
"We have nothing to offer them as far as benefits," he said.
Also on Monday, the administrative services committee approved a request from Superior Court Clerk Elaine Johnson to reclassify personnel in her office whose duties increased after the Georgia Supreme Court ordered the Augusta Judicial Circuit to create a case-assignment system managed by the Clerk of Superior Court.
The committee also voted to fund four new positions in the clerk's office next year.
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.