Ga. sheriff points to pay gap between cops, COs

Sheriff Donna Tompkins appeared before city councilors requesting a change in pay-grades for correctional officers and deputies in her department

By Alva James-Johnson
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

COLUMBUS, Ga. — A pay disparity between the Columbus Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies surfaced Tuesday at a Council meeting.

Muscogee County Sheriff Donna Tompkins appeared before city councilors requesting a change in pay-grades for correctional officers and deputies in her department. She said it would be the second phase in a pay reform process that began with the 2018 budget. Sitting in the audience were about 30 of her employees who showed up in solidarity.

“When I came before this Council at budget-time, I requested a two-part pay reform,” Tompkins said. “As you may recall, the first step was the elimination of the gap pay, and institution of the new longevity and retention pay plan that provides for pay increases based on long-term service.”

The first phase, approved by Council in the fiscal year 2018 budget, has already been implemented, she said. The second phase would mirror pay reform instituted by the Columbus Police Department as part of the 2017 budget to address recruitment and retention issues.

“Tonight, I’m here to ask that this reform be applied to the Sheriff’s Office,” the sheriff said Tuesday. “This would provide parity with the police department and allow us to recruit officers on a more level playing field.”

The Sheriff’s Office had 13 job vacancies at budget-time, Tompkins said, and the number has only increased.

“Today, I have 24 vacancies - 16 deputies and eight correctional officers,” she explained. “This also does not include the six positions that were removed from the Sheriff’s Office budget in 2016 to fund the Rapid Resolution Initiative for $458,000.”

Tompkins said she hired a young man with former military experience just a few months ago. He was moving to the area from Washington, and he came into the department as a Grade 12. She said that’s how everyone, with few exceptions, enters the Sheriff’s Office until they graduate from basic academy.

“Within a week of hiring him, he left me to work for the Columbus Police Department, where he was able to come in as a police officer Grade 14,” she said. “... He was able to get a sign-in bonus, $2,000; applied for military incentive, and perhaps relocation assistance.”

“He will at some point also get a take-home car, a benefit that my deputies at the jail do not get,” she added. “How can I compete when the pay is so drastically different?”

Later in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, she said the difference in pay between a CPD police officer and Sheriff’s deputy is about $2,500, and it doesn’t included the sign-in bonuses and other perks that the CPD is able to provide.

To address the issue, Tompkins presented councilors with a proposal to increase entry level pay at the Sheriff’s Office. She said it was developed by Human Resources Director Reather Hollowell.

Under the plan, all current entry level correctional officers (G-12) and sheriff deputies (G-14) would be moved from steps A and B to steps C and D. It would break down this way:

  • All current correctional officers at steps A and B without a degree would be moved to step C.
  • All current correctional officers at steps B and C with a degree will be moved to step D.
  • All current Sheriff deputies at steps A and B without a degree will be moved to step C.
  • All current Sheriff deputies at steps A, B and C with a degree will be moved to step D.

Tompkins said her office has 327 budgeted sworn officer positions. She currently has 75 correctional officer and 132 deputy positions budgeted. It would cost $438,189 to implement the proposal developed by Hollowell for one year, she said, but she is requesting only half the amount ($219,000) since half the fiscal year is already gone.

“... If no other funding is available, I would ask (that council) use what would be one half of the city’s fund balance reserve to support this initiative,” she said. “I believe we have shown that we are a good investment to this city. And I believe that the hard-working men and women who work for the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office need your support and they deserve your support.”

Councilors recommended that Tompkins bring the proposal to the city’s next work session scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday. Councilor Judy Thomas said she would like to see various combinations of how it would work.

In 2006, Council adopted a pay plan designed by the University of Georgia, placing all police officers, deputy marshals and deputy sheriffs on the same pay plan, with everyone at Grade 14, Tompkins said. Though law enforcement employees from all three departments attend the same basic academy, the parity in the pay plan no longer exists.

“The Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, as you know, is responsible for operating the jail, securing the courts, serving civil process and more,” Tompkins said. “And in addition, we have many other state mandates that are dictating our responsibilities, to included the monitoring and security of government buildings, tracking of over 600 sex offenders in the county, transportation of mental health inmates, juveniles and prisoners across the state.

“... Though our primary mission may be different from the Columbus Police Department, we do respond to calls for assistance from the public,” she said. “We make arrests, we work traffic accidents, we conduct investigations. And I’m so very proud of our investigative unit for working with our federal agencies in an over $4 million drug seizure just recently.

“We are a full service, 24-hour day, seven-day a week, 365 days a year agency in this county, and we serve the people of this county with honor and integrity.” she added. However, the department faces many challenges.

Tompkins said she believes the former Sheriff, John Darr, supported the Rapid Resolution program in good faith, believing it would significantly reduce the jail population by moving people faster through the system. But the jail population continues to rise.

“Our county jail has an ever-increasing inmate population,” she said. “As of this morning, we had 1,120 inmates, of which 56 were charged with murder, 400 were verified gang members, and we have a significant mental health population.

“Being short 30 staff, makes it a continuous daily struggle to maintain adequate staffing ratios approved by the Department of Justice,” she said. “... To compound our problem, during the former sheriff’s administration a decision was made to not seek recruitment incentives.”

Tompkins said crime is the number one concern among local citizens and fixing the pay disparity can help address the problem.

“... This is a very tough job, a calling really, but people have to make a living wage,” she said. “... I believe that we, as the people of Columbus, and this body in general, needs to make a strong statement to the people of Columbus that we consider public safety important.”

Following Tompkins presentation, City Manager Isaiah Hugley thanked her, as well as her staff, for coming to the meeting.

“I appreciate the working relationship that we have with this Sheriff; her leadership has been great and they’ve done some creative and innovative things” he said, referring to comments Tompkins made earlier in the meeting regarding cost-savings since she’s been in office.

However, an expense at the level she requested should be done during the budgeting process, Hugley said.

“.. We do not have the funding at this time; we would have to resort to fund balance to do anything at the $200,000 level,” he said. “And so, I would love to see it be a (fiscal year 2019) budget submission ... that it be considered as we look at city operations at it’s entirety. That’s what I suggest.”

©2018 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.)

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