A raise is coming for county employees following a 3-2 vote to approve adjusting police patrol salaries and giving everyone a 75 cent bump in hourly pay.
Commissioners Chuck and Marshelle Thaxton, along with Commissioner Scotty Tillery voted to approve the plan to begin increasing the minimum salaries for patrol officers, plus give them an additional raise along with the rest of the county's staff.
They also approved of moving forward with a Carl Vincent Institute study on employee pay and job descriptions in the vote as well.
Commissioners Jose Iglesias and Hal Floyd voted against the pay raises, but for separate reasons.
Prior to the commission approving the pay raises, Floyd sought to get his own plan to increase pay on the agenda. He wanted his fellow commissioners to vote on raising the pay grade levels for Polk County's law enforcement, with Polk County Police patrol officers and sheriff's deputies raised from pay grade level 15 to 17, and pay grade level for corporals and detectives from level 16 to 18, and sergeants from level 18 to 20. He additionally wanted the change to be made immediately.
No one would offer a second to the motion, and it failed to get on the agenda.
Instead, Marshelle Thaxton proposed the increase in pay for patrol officers to balance out with what Sheriff's deputies make, and then added in a 75 cent raise for all employees and proceeding with the Carl Vincent Institute study.
That motion made it onto the agenda via a 3-2 vote, and then later was brought up in a long discussion between Commissioners that began the night before during the work session.
Whether it benefits or pay, the compensation county employees receive for their work has been a topic of concern for many months. Commissioners have been discussing the need to increase pay for employees, but have thus far haven't been able to come up with a plan they all could agree on.
In particular, Floyd cited the county's police force as a prime example of employees being underpaid. Polk County Police Officers start at $13.58, and Polk loses officers to other agencies each year. Hoping to increase officer morale and performance, Floyd urged the board to consider raising the police pay grade during the county's work session on March 5.
"The current starting pay rate of $13.58 per hour is inadequate and insufficient to attract, recruit and hire quality applicants and candidates for the position of patrolmen," Floyd said. "The current entry level pay rate of $13.58, which was effective January 2013, has not be adjusted for over 5 years, and the current entry-level pay of $13.58 is more than $1 per hour less than all other law enforcement agencies in Polk County and surrounding counties."
"Therefore, I recommend we do one of two things: Approve chief Dodd’s first proposal of moving patrolmen, corporals, and sergeants pay grade level up 2 pay grades. This will cost $94,655 annually in salary which is .1015 mils, or A\all new patrolmen recruited, hired, and trained will be paid a minimum of $15 per hour," Floyd added. "All current 12 patrolmen and 4 deputies making less than $15 per hour will have their rate of pay increased to $15 per hour effectively immediately. This will cost $32,520 annually in salary or .0349 mils."
Polk County police officers serve an average of 20 months or fewer than 2 years, and the force loses members annually. With years of no positive growth in manpower, Floyd hopes increased pay will incentive officers to join quicker and stay longer for a safer law enforcement team with speedier response times.
"Last year, we lost about 10 police officers," Polk County Police Chief Kenny Dodd said. "We average losing about 7 per year. Last year we lost 10 (and) one to termination, three to other agencies, one to retirement, four went to work in the private sector, and of course, we lost Kristen to murder."
Staff shortage can mean elongated hours, risky scenarios, and overall low morale for officers- all issues Floyd highlighted during the Feb. 5 meeting.
"The current shortage of patrolmen creates an unacceptable response time and inadequate back-up for our 'on-duty' patrolmen," Floyd said. "The citizens of Polk County are not getting the coverage and response time they deserve when they need a patrolman. They deserve and are entitled to much better public safety and law enforcement than they are currently getting."
The county's police, for the most part, performs statistically the same as the country's average force, but it does fall flat in a few areas. While the national average is 12 percent, Polk solved 10 percent of county burglaries. Theft has a national solve rate of 20 percent, and Polk resolved 15 percent of reported thefts. The biggest area of concern was response time, and while it typically takes local officers 10 minutes to respond, employee shortage and major crimes can halt police intervention for upwards of 2 hours.
"Ten minutes is a long time depending on what you're waiting for," Dodd said. "If you're waiting to make a report, it's not that big a deal. If someone's beating on you, that's a long time. Our backup would be the same way- when they call for help and their lives are in danger, 10 minutes is a long time. Understand that's an average time. That includes when 911 says 'can you give this person a call?' that's immediate, that's a one-minute response. Some of these people have had to wait 2 hours. That's not uncommon."
"Even when we run full staff, that's still gonna happen depending on what's going on. It only takes one bad crime- we had 3 murders last year, and when you have a homicide, it takes every guy on the shift to control that scene," Dodd continued. "There's so much that's gotta be done, so you immediately move all 6 officers to that one area to control bystanders, to control evidence, to find suspects, to detain them, to control the crime scene. We have to prioritize depending whats going on- obviously when people's lives are in danger that takes priority. Its gonna always be an issue until we can put enough manpower in the county to create zones."
So, Floyd hopes to see enlarged salaries motivating more officers to join the force, and he hopes to see a larger force tackle the county's issues more consistently, safer, and on a much timely basis.
"There is nothing more important to me than providing the safety and security all of our citizens deserve and are entitled too," Floyd said. "Secondly, the commissioners must make sure we pay our county employees a competitive wage for the job they are expected to do. We must also have a pay grade scale that will allow us to attract, hire and retain quality and qualified individuals for our county."
Commission chair Jennifer Hulsey pointed out and wanted the record to reflect the county gave employees a 2 percent increase in pay in 2015, and then in 2016 allowed Dodd to use part of his budget to allow for several officers to see an increase on their checks to bring the pay level up to what Sheriff's deputies make as a starting salary, and increase corporals pay by two levels.
"In our 2017 budget we did not change the starting pay for the county police," she said. "That's what we're doing now, and it needs to be changed."
She additionally said that any change in pay should be made for all employees, not just those in public safety, and approved of Marshelle Thaxton's request for pay raises at 75 cents an hour for all.
"We need to get this right," Hulsey said. "We need a full evaluation of our entire pay scale. We need to know what we should be paying all of our employees which includes law enforcement."
She added that since the state is working on legislation to require the county to provide those details, that it was important for the county to ensure they were acting responsibly in restructuring the county's pay to employees.
Additionally, she felt any pay raises should also include part time employees, like the nine on staff from other area law enforcement agencies with the Polk County Police Department currently.
Where the conversation went the following night for the vote took several directions. First, County Manager Matt Denton and commissioners wanted clarification on whether the plan would include all employees, or those who are hired on at the full time level.
A number of county employees are part time, from workers hired during the summer to help with the Public Works department, to those officers working part time with the Polk County Police Department.
Thaxton said that it would be all employees, full and part time who get the 75 cent raise per hour.
Floyd then sought to find out how much the plan will cost, and where funds would come from in order to cover the raises.
"For a full year, its approximately $470,000," Marshelle Thaxton said. "If we start in April, it will come out of the landfill account and then in June we'd have to add it to the budget."
He added that his plan was lower than what he originally had conceived of a $1 an hour raise for all employees, but when he tallied out the cost it came to more than $600,000 annually as a cost to the county.
"We have an urgent situation, which I spoke to last night," Floyd said in response. "I think the matter is not a matter of what needs to be done, but how and when we do it. This is a lot more money than I had anticipated and was going to recommend, because your part was going to be to the lower end of the folks who are really not being paid competitively."
He said he spent some time looking at the 282 employees of the county, and judged that "in my opinion there are 93 of those in different jobs throughout the county that are uncompetitive in the marketplace and should have been adjusted somewhat."
He said his plan would have cost around $250,000 to achieve.
"The other side of that was there were 67 percent of our employees who are paid competitively and fairly for the job they're doing, and therefore the 75 cents is nice and I think employees will take anything that is given to them. But I think it is enough said from me. I think this is the wrong approach."
Tillery said that he expected the raise to come in steps, and that 75 cents an hour would apply to some employees, but some would get slightly more to adjust them to the correct pay scale.
Additionally, Iglesias had concerns and issues with the way the raise was being structured. He pointed to how previous commissions had promised as far back as 2008 to give 2.5 percent step raises annually, but then when the economy collapsed never came through with the promised pay increases for four years.
He said he recognized that the economic downtown had lessened the amount of funds available to the county at the time due to less tax revenue coming in and grants and funds from state and federal government sources dried up as well. But that doesn't excuse the previous ordinance change they put in place, and the 1.25 percent employees have been given since the economy began turning around in 2013 is only half of what is promised on paper. He additionally asked if that meant the county should be paying employees 10 percent more than what the currently make.
Iglesias called for the process to be pushed back to the finance committee for now for further debate and allow for the Carl Vincent Institute study to move forward on establishing pay raises and also be able to figure out funding overall.
"We want to make sure that you're given the best (as employees,)" Iglesias said. "And when you're in tense situations, we usually don't make the best decisions as people."
So instead of going with Marshelle Thaxton's plan of increases now and continuing on with the study, Iglesias wanted further study now and to find the funds to pay for raises without having to rely on the Landfill fund to cover costs.
He paraphrased from Ecclesiastes 3:1 in that there is a time to decrease, which the county did, and a time to increase, which he believes the county should do now but in a responsible manner.
Marshelle Thaxton did add in response to Iglesias' complaint about the previous pay increase process that ultimately it is up to commissioners to determine whether to give raises or not, and he added that from the 2008-12 period that Iglesias said the county didn't give raises, there weren't the funds to provide them. Ultimately the commissioners determine what levels to give raises by funding them in the budget and the 1.25 percent annual increases were brought back to ensure there were cost of living increases, Thaxton added.
He pointedly asked Iglesias if the commission couldn't then give those increases based on the language.
Iglesias only wants the county to be in compliance with their previous ordinance language, or to go back and fix it to ensure fair pay and treatment under the ordinance for employees and ensure current and future boards avoid these problems encountered in the past.
Chuck Thaxton agreed that a fix is needed, but wants to be sure it is done correctly as well.
"I agree with doing the study, and I have no problem with doing a study, but it won't be done until after we're done with our budget process," he said.
Thaxton said he wanted to "do something now, and then take that study and over a year or five years or whatever time frame we need, try to fix things," in employee pay issues.
Iglesias additionally called for the county to have a conversation about searching for additional revenue streams to cover the costs of raises, or otherwise he believes the board will continue to just patch the problem each February.
"We need to be putting our plant together and need to get it fixed," he said. "I hope everyone is on board with that."
Ultimately he voted against the pay increases since as he said prior to the call for the vote, he didn't agree with the process by which the commission was undertaking the raises.
Pay raises will begin in April, and the first few months will have to be covered via transfers out of the county's landfill account. The additional raises to salaries will require adjustment to the county's budget for FY 2019, which will also likely include an additional 1.25 percent step raise as part of their annual increases.
Editor Kevin Myrick and SJ Correspondent Sean Williams both contributed to this story. The online version of this story has been updated to add more information from Commission Chair Jennifer Hulsey.