STATE ROAD — Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson is asking commissioners to help him cut off the bleeding in his department, presenting a plan for more than $1 million in raises.
At the Surry County Board of Commissioners’ annual planning retreat on Friday, Atkinson told the board 22 personnel have left the sheriff’s office since January 2016.
Of that number, Atkinson said 11 voluntary separations were a result of inadequate pay. Three deputies found the work simply wasn’t for them, and a handful of others entered the force in full-time roles and were reduced to part-time positions as a result of work performance. Some others were involuntarily separated.
The separations span through Atkinson’s department. He noted he has lost clerical employees, detention officers in the jail and deputies. His department employed 105 people as of Thursday, and it has 109 positions. Sixty-eight of those positions are sworn officer positions. There are 33 positions at the detention center, and Atkinson’s office has a staff of eight clerical personnel.
The four unfilled positions are in the jail, according to Atkinson.
Atkinson presented a salary study to commissioners. He hopes the plan he and Assistant County Manager Sandy Snow put forward on Friday can bring salaries in his office to a level competitive with other law enforcement agencies and the private sector.
“It is getting harder and harder to find competent and qualified people,” Atkinson told commissioners. “Good people are leaving on account of money.”
The sheriff said employees leaving have actually cried while handing in their notice, upset to leave the department but forced to do so to adequately support their families.
Atkinson said only one deputy who left the force in the past year went to another law enforcement agency. The others were pursuing opportunities in the private sector.
Snow noted during the recession that began in 2008, people were quick to take government jobs for the stability those jobs provide. Now that the economy is recovering, they have flocked toward the private sector seeking higher pay.
Detention officers start at a salary of $26,400, according to Atkinson. A new deputy makes $28,584 per year, and a clerical employee in the office starts out at a salary of $24,372.
“I had a guy looking for a career change, and I told him I could put him to work in the jail,” recounted Atkinson. “I told him the starting pay, and he told me he couldn’t do it. He makes $40,000 a year driving a truck.”
He noted a detention officer called it quits and headed to the private sector after he had to take a $500 cash advance out on his paycheck to get through the month.
“I think it (the office’s salary schedule) needs to be attractive from a law enforcement perspective, and it also needs to compare to the other markets,” added Atkinson.
The sheriff said he even worked multiple jobs while a deputy, working up to three at one time to make ends meet.
He also explained there has been a lack of a set pay schedule in the past in the department. Some former sheriffs and members of the board of commissioners played favorites. A total overhaul of the system is needed to bring salaries in line with the duties each employee is performing.
“We need to pay our officers a living wage,” remarked board Chair Eddie Harris.
However, wages aren’t the only matter which is making hiring deputies difficult, according to Atkinson.
“Some guys just can’t handle it when you put them in a car on the night shift and they know help is 20 or 30 minutes away or there is no help,” explained Atkinson. “Some guys can’t handle that.”
Commissioner Van Tucker, citing the amount of anti-law enforcement sentiment that exists in society, asked Atkinson if pay raises would be enough.
“Even with the money, could you hire people to do these jobs?” Tucker asked.
“It gives us a better chance,” answered Atkinson.
The salary study Atkinson and Snow presented to the board would call for an average raise in the department of more than 20 percent, according to the pair of officials.
It would cost the county an additional $1.02 million per year, a cost which board members noted would be recurring.
Atkinson said he would like to see the new salary schedule become effective as soon as possible. If that can’t be done, he hopes commissioners could, by way of a single vote, opt to increase salaries in six-month increments.
He floated an idea of forming a committee consisting of himself, county staff and a couple commissioners if the county board wants to take a more in-depth look into possible solutions for pay in his department.
However, he noted the need to make the positions in his department more attractive from the standpoint of pay is urgent.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.