The Mobile County Commission moved forward with a substantial pay raise for its public safety employees Thursday, just a month after Sheriff Sam Cochran made attempts to secure new county revenues for the same purpose through a bill filed in the state legislature.

The 7.5-percent raise would apply to all Mobile County Sheriff’s deputies and corrections staff at Mobile Metro Jail, and if approved by the Mobile County Personnel Board, would increase the starting salary for new hires, while also expanding the overall pay ranges for all employees.

Officers could see the difference in their checks as early as March 30.

The adjustment was part of a plan presented by Commissioner Connie Hudson that could potentially provide an additional 2.5-percent pay raise for all county employees at the start of the new fiscal year. Together, that could potentially equal a 10-percent raise for all MCSO staff by Oct. 1.

Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson.

“I believe it’s incumbent upon us to react to this and help alleviate this crisis situation that’s happening with law enforcement,” Hudson said. “This would go a long way in helping the department be where they need to be to recruit people. They’re losing officers every day.”

Over the past three years, MCSO employees have been especially vocal about the need for pay increases among their staff, and Cochran himself personally spoke to the issue last Fall after more than a dozen deputies had left the force by October of 2016.

Though there were no county pay increases for several years following the 2008 recession, commissioners have approved several cost-of-living adjustments for all employees since 2014 — bumping salaries up around 5 percent with each fiscal year.

Despite that, Cochran has maintained that low wages continue to make it difficult for MCSO to compete with other agencies, retain veteran employees and attract new recruits. He said the problem has also been exacerbated by an “anti-police” mentality seen “across the country.”

On Thursday, he called the proposed 7.5-percent pay increase “a step in the right direction.”

(Lagniappe) Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran

“At this point in time, I believe they’ve done all they can do, but going forward, it’s our anticipation they’ll continue to look at these issues,” he said. “By raising the starting salary, it puts us in a more competitive position to compete for the decreasing number of new hires that are available.”

Cochran made similar comments when discussing a legislative bill his office advertised in January that was intended to earmark anticipated county revenues from the “Simplified Seller Use Tax Remittance Act” to fund higher salaries and additional training for his officers.

Those revenues, which come from state and local sales taxes on online purchases, are already generating far more revenue than initially expected. However, after “some negotiations,” and in light of the proposed pay adjustments, Cochran said his office isn’t planning to move on that bill.

Last month, the Alabama Department of Revenue said it expected to take in roughly $40 million in online sales taxes, with Mobile County poised to receive $840,000 annually. However, this week Hudson said the county is expecting $1.5 million annually — $1.2 million of which will be used to fund increased salaries for employees in District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office.

Voting with Hudson to move MCSO’s pay raises forward was Commissioner Jerry Carl, who said “the safety of our citizens” is one of the Commission’s “top priorities.”

“We’ve done it with District Attorney’s case,” Carl said. “We’ve settled that, and now we’ll have more DA’s up there trying more cases, and I think we need more detectives and more deputies on the streets arresting people, too.”

Projected cost of county salary adjustments. (Mobile County)

Funding Hudson’s plan
The county’s finance department is projecting the 7.5-percent pay adjustment for MCSO will cost an additional $1.1 million a year. If approved, the 2-percent cost-of-living adjustment for all county employees would require $2.4 million — bringing the total recurring cost to $2.8 million.

Along with online sales tax revenue, Hudson’s plan would sustain that increased personnel cost with $2 million of annual carryover funds. Potentially, it could also redirect a significant portion of tobacco tax review used for economic development efforts, which was built in as a “safety net.”

“Right now, our trend is toward slight growth, and if that continues, we will certainly be in a position to be able to utilize part of those funds,” she said. “[Using economic development funds] is not something we would want to do or even consider doing long term. Obviously, economic development is an important part of what we do.”

While Hudson called the plan “doable,” she also said it would be contingent upon sustained growth in revenue, adding there was “a small amount of risk” in taking on the expense.

Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood.

However, Commission President Merceria Ludgood voted against the pay increase and took those financial concerns much further on Thursday. While Ludgood supports addressing MCSO’s needs, she said the budgetary implications of Hudson’s proposal “frightened” her.

She particularly took issue with the use of economic development funding to cover the recurring cost of the raises given that, according to a recent a study, Mobile has the “16th highest unemployment rate” in the United States.

“I can’t imagine adding this to our budget on the hope that things are going stay like they are when I have another department telling me that they also have critical hiring needs,” Ludgood said. “And when you look at our strategy — we’ll take the money we’d put in economic development to do it – I don’t know about y’all, but I have lots of folks in District 1 who have no job at all.”

Despite Ludgood’s concerns, the proposal passed 2-1, though it will still have to be approved by the Mobile County Personnel Board before it can be implemented. After the meeting, Cochran thanked Hudson and Carl for their support. He also briefly spoke to Ludgood’s opposition to using of economic development funding.

“Public safety is economic development,” he said. “If you have no public safety, you can’t expect to have economic development.”