Franklin County Sheriff’s Department employees filled the courtroom of the old courthouse Thursday to express their displeasure to county commissioners about going years without raises.
If the problem continues, more deputies will leave the sheriff’s office because they can no longer afford to work there, said Ben Berges, president of the Franklin County Association of Deputy Sheriffs.
Sheriff Gary Toelke suggested that there be a committee formed to look at the issues. First District Commissioner Tim Brinker said he thought a countywide budget committee would be a good idea, adding that the makeup and mission of the group would have to be determined.
The commissioners took no action on fixing the pay problems Thursday.
Berges noted that there are sheriff’s office employees who work 12-hour shifts plus overtime and then have a side job just to support their families. He asked how they are supposed to unwind from a stressful law enforcement job when they are always working.
Deputy Charlie Herwig said he is a father of two, and his wages are so tight that he had to look for a second job last year. He joined the National Guard, which has helped subsidize his income.
“What’s going to happen is that we’re going to lose quality deputies,” Herwig added.
Full-time sheriff’s office employees, including deputies, detention officers and dispatchers, make between $22,074 a year to $61,669. That does not include the sheriff’s salary of $72,466.
The average household income in Franklin County in 2012 was estimated to be $61,884, according to new data from the Census Bureau.
County employees have not received an across-the-board raise since 2008, but some select employees in a few county offices got raises this year. And in 2011 the county gave employees a $700 one-time bonus. But Berges said the bonus did not help sheriff’s office employees. After the bonus was taxed, the sheriff’s office employees did not even notice additional money in their paychecks, he said.
Commissioners said that giving county employees a raise remains the top priority. But finding the more than $300,000 that would be required to give a $1,000 raise to each employee is an ongoing problem. Recent projects have put the county in debt until 2032 and sales tax revenue continues to be unpredictable.
County commissioners who are in office now say they inherited debt for new county facilities from previous commissioners.
Recently, commissioners said at the very least they would like to give the employees a one-time stipend or bonus next year. A bonus or stipend would be a one-time payment and would not commit the county to paying it in future years.
A few deputies publicly stated at the meeting that they enjoy working for Franklin County because it is their home, but it is reaching a point that they can no longer support their families at current pay levels.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is a “shining star” for law enforcement in the state, but that won’t last for long if there continues to be no incentives to stay, Berges said in a statement from the deputy sheriffs association.
The sheriff’s office is already having a hard time retaining deputies, Toelke said, adding that he has lost officers to St. Clair, Maryland Heights, Sunset Hills, St. Charles, Eureka, St. Louis University and that he has a longtime detective who may take a job with a Jefferson County city. Many others are looking for better opportunities, too, he said.
Toelke said he has done research to show that his deputies respond to more calls than officers in local municipalities. But he said his deputies are paid less in most cases.
Toelke said he is not being critical of the other agencies in the county by saying they respond to fewer calls. Those agencies do a great job, but he said numbers show that his deputies respond to more calls per officer and are not compensated accordingly.
Toelke said his research shows that Pacific officers are the lowest paid, and that the sheriff’s office and the Sullivan Police Department pay about the same. But he said figures show that the police departments in St. Clair, Union and Washington pay more.
Some county deputies are actually making less now than what they used to earn because insurance costs have risen, Berges said.
The starting pay of the sheriff’s office compared to the local city police departments is fairly close, Toelke said. But the police departments have given raises through the years while the sheriff’s office pay has not stayed competitive.
Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer said county employees are still offered a great retirement plan. But a couple of deputies retorted that statement, saying the quality retirement plan does them no good if they cannot afford to stay with the sheriff’s office.
The commissioners said they deeply appreciate the job the deputies do by putting their lives on the line for the county.
Some of the sheriff’s office employees said there has been a significant lack of communication from the county commission about issues that affect them. For instance, they said they read about issues in the newspaper before being told directly by the county commissioners. Moreover, the deputies say they hear the county has no money and then have questions when they read in the newspaper that the commission has approved large expenditures.
Brinker vowed to step up communication with employees.
Second District Commissioner Mike Schatz explained that oftentimes purchases are made with restricted revenue that can only be used in certain departments. For instance, one sheriff’s office employee asked why the commissioners say they are short of funds and then approve a costly equipment purchase. Schatz noted the money for the equipment purchase was made with revenue from the road and bridge sales tax, which is for the highway department and cannot be used to give deputies raises.
Schatz, a former Franklin County Sheriff’s Office employee, said he understands the struggle over pay issues. Early in his law enforcement career he said he held down a second job in construction.
Despite the problems, Griesheimer said he feels very lucky to be a commissioner in Franklin County. The commission and the sheriff’s office get along well here unlike in many other counties, he said, adding that it is like a “family.”
Looking forward, Griesheimer said plans are in the works to boost county employee pay, and one idea is to adopt a use tax to generate more revenue. The use tax, he said, would only apply to people who spend more than $2,000, out of state and do not pay sales tax where the item is purchased and then bring the product back to Franklin County to use. Therefore, the use tax would not affect most local residents, he said, noting that the plan is to put the measure up to a public vote in April.
Another idea to generate revenue is for the sheriff’s office to charge entities that utilize its dispatching services.
Schatz noted that there are ongoing efforts to cut costs such as the commissioners’ decision this year to halt the Pave the County program by no longer converting gravel roads to asphalt.