MARIETTA — Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce said Friday that the county is working on proposals to address pay and retention issues in its public safety departments and will have recommendations to make this summer.
Boyce said he has asked county staff to put together a slew of proposals for commissioners to discuss at a work session in June ahead of adopting some of those proposals in the county’s fiscal 2020 budget in July.
Boyce pushed back against critics who have called the issue of police staffing a “crisis,” however.
“That’s their word,” Boyce said. “Look, there are many issues we have in the county, and what I would say is that this is something that we’re well aware of and we’re approaching it in a methodical fashion that ultimately will produce an outcome that the board finds reflects what it is we can do to keep our officers.”
In addition to across the board merit-based raises, Boyce said the county is considering offering more incentives to police officers, such as funding their contribution to the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund, a supplemental retirement program for law enforcement officers.
Boyce said he didn’t want to discuss many specifics yet because he needs to brief commissioners first, but he said that he and his fellow commissioners are “absolutely” in agreement that something needs to be done.
Data shows that Cobb police officers’ starting salaries are basically in line with those in neighboring jurisdictions.
Cobb’s starting salary for a police officer is about $40,014, according to the department’s website. This does not include education incentives the department offers, which bumps the salary if the officer has a college degree, or other incentives, such as increased pay for taking overnight shifts.
Among the 10 counties that make up metro Atlanta, the starting pay for Cobb police officers ranks sixth. Cobb police officers’ base salary is higher than those starting with the Gwinnett and Clayton police departments and the Fayette and Rockdale county sheriffs’ departments.
But new Cobb police officers make less than their counterparts in the DeKalb, Henry and Fulton police departments as well as the Cherokee and Douglas county sheriffs’ offices.
However, only $2,660 separates the lowest starting pay among the 10 counties, Fayette, which pays $38,609 to new sheriff’s deputies, with the highest, Fulton, which has a starting base salary of $41,269 for new officers.
Cobb and all nine other metro counties lag behind the starting salary for Atlanta police ($48,500).
Four of Cobb’s six cities offer higher starting base pay for police officers than the county’s police department, while Marietta and Kennesaw police offer less.
These figures are only for the starting base pay for officers and deputies. With incentives and raises, most officers would make much more.
“If you stay with the system and you’re competitive and get promoted, you’re going to make a respectable salary when you retire,” Boyce said.
At an event at Vinings Bank earlier this month that aimed to discuss affordable housing, Boyce said that many officers get paid far more than the base salary.
“I asked to have a printout of all the salaries for everybody in the police department in Cobb County. We have police officers in this county that are making close to $100,000 a year. The headline doesn’t read that, it reads the $40,000 ones. But we’re working on that,” Boyce said.
The average salary for all police officers in Georgia is $42,990, based on May 2018 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the average salary is $66,430 for detectives and criminal investigators in Georgia and $66,680 for Georgia’s first-line supervisors of police and detectives, according to the BLS.
Boyce said the county raised pay for about 2,400 of its employees after implementing recommendations from a pay and class study in 2017. About half of those employees worked in public safety, he said.
After the county raised pay for those employees, neighboring jurisdictions did the same in response, Boyce said.
Interim Cobb Police Chief Tim Cox said the department already offers a slew of incentives designed to retain officers. These include educational incentives that pay officers better if they have an advanced degree, tuition reimbursement programs to help pay for officer’s continuing education, extra pay if officers work overnight shifts and a take-home car program.
Cox said between 80 and 90 percent of officers who are eligible for the program have a take-home vehicle. Boyce said that amounts to about 700 vehicles the county has purchased and maintains.
Additionally, Cox said, officers receive a promotion and raise after the first 18 months, and from that point on, annual evaluations that can qualify them for more raises.
The department has also shifted its officers to four-day work weeks, giving them three-day weekends, Cox said. Some other police departments offer housing stipends, Cox said, but aside from that, Cobb police has implemented many of the most successful incentive practices.
In 2018, Cobb police added 48 officers to its ranks, but lost 72 due to retirements or resignations, giving the department a net loss for the year of 24 officers.
In that same year, Gwinnett police added 124 officers and lost 80 for a net gain of 44, DeKalb police added 175 officers and lost 94 for a net gain of 81, and Atlanta added 137 and lost 185 for a net loss of 48, according to department spokespeople. Marietta police added 18 and lost 17 in 2018 for a net gain of one officer.
At the end of 2018, Cobb had 98 unfilled vacancies in its police department, which is less than the DeKalb (106), Gwinnett (125) and Atlanta (358) police departments.
Cox said he thinks turnover is inevitable for all police departments. A good number of officers retire every year, some officers leave the force shortly after joining if they discover the job isn’t what they expected it would be, and the private sector will typically offer better pay and benefits than government work, Cox added.
“I’ve been with Cobb County over 34 years, and I’ve seen the highs and lows when it came to manpower and turnover. There will always be turnover,” he said.
On top of all that, departments across the country are seeing fewer applicants, which leaves local police departments competing for a smaller pool of potential employees, Cox said.
Boyce expressed a similar sentiment.
“The trouble that we all have is that we’re all fishing from the same well,” Boyce said. “So eventually you run out of people to fish for.”