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As the county prepares to hold its budget public hearing Monday morning, Halifax Sheriff Wes Tripp says he is “very disheartened and sad to know that our dedicated county employees, who work tirelessly for the citizens of this great county, will not be receiving any cost of living and performance-based raises this coming fiscal year.”

This comes on the heels of County Manager Tony Brown’s budget message last week in which it was announced there would be no tax increase for the upcoming fiscal year and there would be no employee pay raises.

The budget public hearing will be held at 9:30 a.m. at the Historic Courthouse in Halifax.

Pay study

Brown said today, “We’ve discussed that we want to have a classification pay study done. That will cost between $25,000 to $50,000.”

A classification pay study goes into specific details of job classifications and job descriptions, Brown said.

Brown said the county has given pay raises of around 2 percent the last three or four years.

Catching employees up to salaries of those in surrounding areas is an expensive proposition.

The last time human resources did a simple comparison, looking at positions “fairly similar” as those in Halifax County, it was determined the county was around 7 percent behind, Brown said.

That study was done four or five years ago and now the county on average will be around 8 percent behind going into the upcoming fiscal year. “That was the challenge of doing a raise this year. The challenge is to make sure we have competitive salaries so we can attract good people.”

Brown said it costs about $175,000 to do a 1 percent raise for everyone. “It could cost a million just to get back and be competitive.”

Options were presented to commissioners which would have provided a 2 percent salary adjustment — one which would have required a 1-cent tax increase.

The second option, which would have called for a 2-cent tax increase would have provided a 2 percent salary adjustment and funded the employee pay-for-performance plan.

Sheriff concerns

Tripp said Tuesday his concerns are not only for his employees — deputies and detention officers — but for all county employees.

In a letter specifically focusing on his employees, Tripp said, “I realize that our county commissioners have a tall task balancing the resources that allow the county to operate efficiently.”

He said, however, deputy starting salary is $29,764 a year — about  $13.63 per hour.

Detention officer starting salary is $28,323 —  about $12.97 per hour. “This is far below the starting salaries of surrounding jurisdictions. This discrepancy in salary ... has had devastating affects on our ability to recruit and retain employees.”

Recruiting and retaining personnel is the most challenging issue facing the sheriff’s office, he said. “The fact is, given the current environment of the law enforcement profession and the inability of our department to compete monetarily, recruiting the next generation of deputies and detention officers is more difficult than ever.  

“With the pressures, demands, and expectations of the community, finding individuals who want to step into and stay in this uncertain and dangerous career is a daunting task. As someone that has one of the largest budgets in the county, I do understand that costs are always a concern.”  

Retention

The standard cost to recruit, hire, equip, and fully train a deputy and detention officer from the time they submit their initial application to the time they can function independently may exceed $46,907 for deputies and $39,669 for detention officers.

But often the sheriff’s office serves a training ground for other agencies, more so the Roanoke Rapids Police Department.

Some get out of law enforcement completely because of the pay and the sheriff’s office loses that investment. “We need about three to five years of service to recoup this initial investment,” he said. “Reports have shown that that in North Carolina, turnover rates for nurses are 12 percent; teachers are 13 percent; and law enforcement officers are 7 percent.  The average annual (Halifax County) sheriff’s office turnover rate over the past five years is 22 percent.”

This retention percentage, the sheriff said, “Threatens our ability to maintain a sufficient number of experienced, well-trained deputies and detention officers. Experience and knowledge is lost.  This directly affects our citizens. When we lose experience and knowledge due to our inability to be competitive, the results are inevitable. The liability for the sheriff and county are directly impacted as well. We just want to be able to attract people and to keep them for the long haul.  Our citizens deserve that.”

For instance, Tripp said, he had a lieutenant to take another job cutting grass for a contractor and his pay was more for cutting grass than it was at the sheriff’s office. Additionally, some sheriff’s office deputies have to resort to public assistance to make ends meet financially.

Starting point

Tripp would like to see deputies and detention officers get the same starting pay — $35,000. “Detention officers are not second class citizens. The best training grounds are to work in the detention center and court because you see the Halifax County criminal base day to day.”

Tripp said in the letter, “Since 2013, even with all of the budgetary hardships we have had to face, including challenges with recruiting and retaining employees, our office maintained very high standards. We have also been successful at keeping crime low compared with our neighboring counties and internal jurisdictions.   

“Due to the hard work of the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office narcotics unit, we have been able to use forfeiture monies to supplement our budget for needed equipment.”

That well is running dry. “I have done everything I can do to make sure this department ran fiscally responsible. I understand that the county commissioners have done what they can to increase revenue. However, as sheriff of this county, my responsibility is to provide effective law enforcement services by staffing my department with experienced and knowledgeable professionals. I cannot do any more than I am doing. I have made all the cuts I can.”

Remembering employees

Even with the “recent devastating news” the 500-plus employees of Halifax County will not receive any additional raises, the sheriff said, “I would like to respectfully thank the county commissioners for their continued support related to employee benefits such as medical costs.  As an elected official with this county, I understand the difficult tasks our leaders have in creating a budget that has no tax increase. However, as one of the largest employers in this county we cannot forget our most valuable asset — our employees.”

Tripp said budget crises exist everywhere. “Our neighboring counties and municipalities have found a way to provide raises for their employees. I believe, as your elected sheriff, that there is still time for our respected leaders to go back to the drawing board and find a way to prevent our 500-plus employees from falling even further behind in salary.”  

Board chair response

“I think we know what we need to do,” said board Chair Vernon Bryant. “We’ve got to give consideration to deputies and bring them up to speed and all the other employees. It’s on our radar.”

Bryant said on Monday the board will listen to what the public has to say about the budget. “We will definitely listen to the citizens. It’s where people need to come and voice their concerns.”

On June 17 the budget is scheduled for adoption. Whether there will be any changes between the public hearing and the time the budget is set for adoption will be a board decision, he said. But Bryant does envision a day when the board will address pay. “I do see that coming. For so many years we’ve been so far behind. It’s a tough act between raises and raising taxes. I do see us looking at that. We have definitely got that on our radar. We’re real concerned about employee pay at the sheriff’s office, particularly deputies. They’re the highest ranking law enforcement in the county. It’s on the radar. At the same time we’re concerned about all of them (employees). We want to make salaries more competitive and there are a lot of things we’re trying to do to keep costs down. It’s definitely on the radar, not only for me but all commissioners.”