It’s said competition is good for everybody in the private sector, but ensuring competitive salaries and benefits in the public sector can leave municipalities in a fiscal bind.
That competition may be an unintended consequence of Mobile’s recent pay hike for its first responders, as county officials find themselves trying to see what, if anything, they can do to bring Mobile County Sheriff’s Office salaries up to comparable levels.
“We knew it would be a problem for us, but I think it’s a good problem to have,” Commission President Jerry Carl said. “We’ve got some good, quality people, and we need to do what it takes to keep them here.”
Despite receiving cost-of-living adjustments over the past three years, deputies and corrections officers working for the MCSO and in Mobile Metro Jail still feel like they’re making up for a seven-year dry spell. From 2007 to 2014, no raises were given to county employees.
That problem seems to have been exacerbated by the $5,000 raise the city of Mobile passed on to all of its sworn police officers this year.
Those raises were prioritized to respond to a number of officers who had left the force for better-paying, safer jobs elsewhere. Over the last 18 months, Chief James Barber said the Mobile Police Department has lost about 100 officers.
Earlier this week, Sheriff Sam Cochran told commissioners the county could be facing a similar “crisis” soon, adding that he’s lost 12 to 15 deputies over the past eight months alone. Cochran also said the effect of low wages is being compounded by the current climate facing law enforcement officers in the United States.“The pressures on our deputy sheriffs and our corrections officers are probably the highest I’ve seen in my career,” Cochran said. “Now, in addition to the dangers of the job, they’re feeling the pressure of their family and friends encouraging them to get out of law enforcement altogether.”
In addition to being short staffed, Cochran said losing seasoned deputies can actually drive up costs for the department because new officers have to go through 13 weeks of training at the law enforcement academy. It also means less experience on the street.
“With high attrition, you have a lot more junior officers, and they may not respond the same way a senior officer might who’s been around and seen certain situations before,” Cochran said. “You don’t want a police force involving too many young deputy sheriffs.”
When the county approved its $132 million budget for fiscal year 2017, it included a 2.5 percent merit raise and a one-time $1,000 bonus for all county employees. That brought the total increase in salary for all county employees over the past three years to 10 percent.
However, Lt. Richard Cayton, who leads the Merit System Employees Association, said deputies and corrections officers in Mobile County are still paid well below the national average for law enforcement salaries.
At Monday’s meeting, other MCSO employees addressed commissioners to float the idea of hazardous duty pay or an expedited retirement path because of the stressful nature of their jobs. Some in higher-ranking positions also spoke up for officers that have been working second jobs to make ends meet.
“In 1990, I left the Mobile Police Department and came over to [the county] because the pay and benefits were better, but we’ve completely flip-flopped,” Capt. Paul Burch said. “We never expected to get rich when we took this job, but we expected to be able to support our families.”
Specifically, Cayton told Lagniappe deputies are looking for a $5,000 to $9,000 salary increase “within the next couple of weeks.” But while the request for more compensation wasn’t anything new, neither was the response from commissioners.
As he has done before, Carl was quick to throw vocal support behind law enforcement. Commissioner Connie Hudson, however, said while she understands the need for a raise, the county still isn’t in a place where it can “safely” raise MCSO salaries any more than it already has this year.“We’re doing as best we can, but we’re still hoping to continue to find ways to do better,” Hudson said. “Whenever you give a raise, you have to have a perpetual source of funding to continue to support that. What we don’t want is to give raises, not have the funds be there and then have to lay people off.”
Suggesting the loss of deputies had truly reached a “crisis” point, some with MCSO suggested the county “dip into its reserves,” as a temporary fix.
Hudson, however, said that could likely have a negative impact on the county’s interest rates and credit ratings that would be hard to recover from.
Carl said like the city, the county’s best option probably lies in providing a raise for its first responders that is separate from its other employees.
The problem is that this has not been done before, according to Hudson, and until the city’s action last month, didn’t even seem to be on the commission’s radar.
“I can’t speak for the other commissioners, but that’s not something that has ever been discussed at a meeting. There’s no precedent for it,” Hudson said. “I’m not even sure there was any precedent for it on the city level. I know in the nine years I was on the city council, it was never really discussed there, either.”
Hudson said commissioners had “heard” the concerns of the deputies, but would have to continue looking at trends in the county’s revenue that could sustain a more substantial pay increase for all of the county’s 1,400 employees.
During budget deliberations, commissioners said a second 2.5 percent increase could be implemented this year if the revenue is there to support it.
In the meantime, Cochran said his office would be working to put together data comparing the cost of training new officers to a salary increase in hopes of finding a more attainable proposal.