With no pay raises in the last five years, and short-term prospects dim, morale among Franklin County deputies is at a low point and some are looking for better paying jobs elsewhere.
That leaves Sheriff Gary Toelke worried and searching for answers.
“We just lost a very good employee to Sunset Hills police because he can make more money,” Toelke said this week.
Another deputy recently took a position in St. Charles County and “several are looking,” Toelke acknowledged .
He said he plans to form a committee within the department made up of deputies from all divisions to brainstorm about possible approaches.
Next week, the sheriff said he will begin holding education classes with his staff to explain how the department budget works, where the revenue comes from and how it’s used.
“The big question I keep hearing is where is the money going,” Toelke remarked.
“The problem is we have people who have been very loyal over the years, but when you go for five years without a raise it really hits morale,” Toelke said. Some employees actually are taking home less pay, he noted, because of higher costs for health benefits.
The sheriff’s office, while somewhat different from other county departments, is experiencing the same morale issues over pay disparity.
The county commission has been discussing financing a pay study but has backed off that idea because there isn’t any money to give raises anyway.
“We can’t compete with the St. Louis area and at the same time some of the local departments are giving raises,” Toelke noted.
“For some of my officers, it’s tough to make a living,” he remarked.
Prior to 1995, the sheriff’s office was funded entirely with revenue from the county’s general fund which placed extreme limits on the department.
“We were really hurting for manpower,” Toelke explained.
Then in 1996, the decision was made to ask voters for a quarter-cent law enforcement sales tax. The voters approved the tax and that made a huge difference.
“We were able to bring salaries up in line with other agencies and had money to buy new patrol cars and upgrade equipment,” Toelke said, noting that by that time the department’s fleet was in bad shape.
Then in 2007, county voters approved a second, quarter-cent sales tax for the sheriff’s office.
“That allowed us to hire additional manpower to keep up with the increasing number of calls,” the sheriff said.
Just as things were rolling along, the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy and sales tax revenue for the sheriff’s office went into a tailspin.
In 2008, Toelke said, the law enforcement sales tax generated $5,287,704, Toelke noted. A year later, that had dropped to $4,972,342, which was the low point.
There was a slight increase in 2010 when the tax brought in $5,033,000. In 2011 it raised $5,096,000 and in 2012, $5,214,419, Toelke noted.
“These have been hard times,” the sheriff commented. “If the sales tax had continued to increase at a modest 2 percent annually, at least we could have given cost-of-living raises,” he said. “If we had that we’d be in shape to give good raises.”
After the first sales tax passed in 1996, Toelke said one of the key goals was to raise salaries so the department established its own salary schedule basing raises on various factors including education, training and the length of service with the department.
“The county as a whole later set up a similar schedule to ours based on a study by East-West Gateway,” Toelke noted.
“The ideal would be if the county had everyone on the same (pay) plan,” Toelke said. But he conceded that the problem is with the elected officials who oversee the various county departments.
“I don’t compete with other (county) departments,” the sheriff said. “I have to compete with other agencies. If I see a need, I have to go to the county commission and make my case, then they decide.”
The sheriff’s office currently has a staff of 136 people which includes road patrol officers, detectives, jail personnel, civil officers and communications officers.
Since 2006, Toelke said he’s lost 17 officers to other agencies.
“We’ve got people looking right now because we can’t give raises,” he said.