Cobb commissioners are under fire from supporters of the county’s police department who say that officer salaries have lagged behind those of their peers in surrounding departments.

Those pushing for higher officer pay have taken aim at Cobb’s top elected official, county Chairman Mike Boyce, for not addressing sooner a problem they say has been in place since before his administration.

On flyers titled “Cobb County Police Department in Crisis,” east Cobb resident Susan Hampton wrote that the county police department hired 48 officers last year but lost 72 officers − a result, she says, of officer salaries “well below” competing departments in metro Atlanta. Hampton says she's been handing the flyers out at nearly all of Boyce's town halls since the first, held March 5 at Sewell Mill Library.

“I love libraries, I love hiking trails, I love the parks … but we need to be taking care of what’s important first, and then what we have left over, then let’s apply that money to the fun things,” Hampton said in remarks during Thursday afternoon’s town hall meeting at the North Cobb Senior Center in Acworth.

At the March 5 town hall, Boyce responded to Hampton's similar comments, saying the county is working to find ways to raise salaries for public safety officials.

“What we need to do is fix that gap, and I’m committed to fixing that gap, and we’re going to fix that gap with our tax digest,” Boyce said. “The problem we have is (officers) get to about five years in the system, and that’s when we start to lose our edge competing with other counties, and so they go off. And I’ll say this to anybody — your responsibility is to your family, and if this county can’t pay you a wage that lets you take care of your family, then I will write you a letter of endorsement if you want to go somewhere else. You need to take care of your family.”

The main focus of the town halls has been to present an overview of the county’s transit and transportation future and an early look at Boyce’s 2020 budgetary asks, which total more than $11 million and includes $7.2 million for a 3-percent across-the-board pay increase for all county employees and $800,000 to restore Sunday hours at all county libraries.

Boyce is also proposing $2.35 million to be used to reduce the rate of the county’s water transfer down from its current 10 percent, and another half a million toward addressing the opioid crisis and the issue of newborn baby deaths.

“For me, some of the special things we’re doing is sort of like ‘extra money,’ so ‘Let’s just add on a garage to the house,’ but do we really want to add on a garage to the house that might actually be on fire?” Hampton said Thursday. “I feel like our house is on fire.”

Hampton is not alone among those raising the alarm with the police department.

Sgt. Steve Gaynor has addressed county leaders at past commission meetings this year highlighting the county’s pay as compared to other departments. With a rookie cop in Cobb earning $40,014, Gaynor says the county is fourth from the bottom in pay out of 12 metro Atlanta agencies, per data from the Fraternal Order of Police.

Gaynor is the president of the Cobb County F.O.P. Kermit C. Sanders Lodge #13, which represents more than 700 members of law enforcement, as well as secretary for the statewide F.O.P.

Topping the list, according to the FOP data, are the police departments of Atlanta and Brookhaven, which start officers at $48,500.

Those salaries, says Cobb Police Chief Mike Register, are leading to many officers leaving his department within a three- to six-year window.

“We do an exit interview, and most of the officers that are leaving are stating that they are either, A., Getting out of law enforcement, or B ., they are going to another department that they can realize more pay or what they consider better benefits,” Register said, addressing Hampton’s remarks and others in attendance at the town hall.

STAFFING CHALLENGES AN ONGOING ISSUE

Sam Heaton, the county’s director of public safety, says the police department has about 625 sworn officers in its employment − 80 short of the 705 officers allotted under the department’s budget.

But he says such a gap has been typical in the five years he has been at the helm.

“When I started in the position in 2014, we had a vacancy rate around 60 or so at that point. Since then, we have added approximately 80 to 100 officers over the five-year period,” Heaton says.

The smallest he has seen the gap in officers, he says, has been around 30, when the department began offering perks such as a take-home car program. But he says the county has fallen behind since.

Heaton is retiring at the end of this month after more than 33 years working for the county. He has served as public safety director since 2014 following the resignation of Jack Forsythe, who had been selected as director a year prior.

Forsythe submitted a blistering letter of resignation in his departure, writing to then-county manager David Hankerson that Cobb had “suffered from a lack of sufficient funding and resources to properly sustain the appropriate level of personnel, facilities and equipment needed to provide an adequate level of protection for the citizens …”

That lack of support, Forsythe wrote, increased officer safety issues, reduced the number of officers available for calls, increased fire response times and brought about the “degradation of the morale” of all public safety personnel. The need for additional resources, he added, was “exacerbated” with the then-impending arrival of the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County. The Braves went on to open SunTrust Park and The Battery Atlanta, its mixed-use development, in 2017.

With his time left with the county dwindling, Heaton said he and Register remain in the stages of identifying ways the department could improve officer retention.

“We’re looking for ways we can do it internally because I know for a fact we’re not going to do anything externally in any way, meaning any type of millage rate increase or anything like that,” Heaton said.

Boyce is not proposing a millage rate increase in the 2020 budget. Last year’s tax increase that he proposed was passed by a slim 3-2 margin.

Heaton says there has been discussion about the likely growth in the tax digest potentially helping to fill the police pay gap.

Getting lost in the discussion, Boyce said at the March 5 town hall, are the pay-and-class study pay increase recommendations the county implemented in 2017, which he says out of 2,400 employees who saw pay increases, half were in public safety.

But Gaynor says those increases were not true raises for police officers.

“He’ll say, I gave 1,200 public safety employees pay raises − OK, you gave them adjustments based on the pay study that you implemented when you first took office,” he said. “Those raises are not truly raises − they’re adjustments, because you adjusted them anywhere from a quarter to a penny. That’s not a pay raise, and a pay raise is across the board — it’s not an individual thing. And not everybody in public safety got it, so don’t classify it as a pay raise.”

Gaynor, Hampton and others are expected to keep the issue in front of Boyce and other county officials at the March 26 commission meeting, and are inviting supporters of their cause to rally with them.

Follow Jon Gargis on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JonGargis.