Sheriff Wes Tripp and board of commissioners Chairman Vernon Bryant say they have opened lines of communication about pay for all Halifax County employees after meeting with each other for about an hour Wednesday night.
Their meeting came after a strongly worded press release was issued by the county Monday — a press release which Bryant said was authorized by all six commissioners and is now one both the sheriff and the board chair want to move past.
“The only thing I’m going to say is when it occurred all six commissioners approved it but we’re beyond that and it’s water under the bridge,” Bryant said.
Said Tripp: “We’ve got to move forward. It got heated, rightfully so, and it’s the last time I’m going to say it — I do stand behind my responses but we’ve got to move forward and we’ve got to govern this county. I have to govern it through law enforcement and they have to govern it through their business.”
In an interview with the two today, both Bryant and Tripp offered statements before fielding questions by rrspin.com.
“Sheriff Wes Tripp and I have met and have had a very good conversation regarding pay for his staff as well as for other county employees. We look forward to working together in a very positive way and moving forward,” Bryant said.
The sheriff said in his statement, “We had a productive conversation. Although we have not arrived at a permanent solution, it's my hope that we are working towards it in the very near future.”
Tripp said, “The lines of communications are now open. I look forward to working with Chairman Bryant and the commissioners in improving our employees’ salaries. It's crucial that a plan is implemented sooner rather than later.”
The sheriff said he will continue to bring awareness to the “serious problem” of pay for all employees. “I stand firm in my responses to the previous press release from the commissioners. However, that now is in the past where it shall remain. Our continued focus should be our employees. I'm optimistic, going forward, that the concerns of our employees will be first and foremost.”
Beyond friendship — business
Asked whether they were closer on the pay issue than might be perceived, Tripp said, “On a personal level, mine and Vernon’s relationship is strong. We’ve been friends, our families are friends but we are able to separate personal and business right now.
“The chairman of our commissioners has always had it on his mind the employees need to be compensated and that has been his goal. As I have said in previous releases I do respect what the commissioners have to deal with when they go talking about a several million dollar budget because I have had to manage $9 million of that allotment that they oversee. I am elected but I do respect what they have to do because more importantly they manage my money so I can get the job done.”
Bryant reiterated there is no personal rift between him and the sheriff. “We are friends. We have been lifelong friends. The sheriff was a pallbearer at my brother’s funeral in 2002. Beyond friendship this is business and we have to look out for things like that. We have an awesome task of dealing with a $47 million budget and we have a lot of needs out there.”
Bryant said the sheriff’s office has needs other than salaries. “He has a jail need as far as housing inmates in other counties and then of course we have the retention and recruitment issue as relates to the sheriff’s department and relates to other departments within the county.”
Bryant said, “I realize we offer some good benefits to our county employees when it comes to health insurance as long as they participate in the wellness program, longevity pay. Some other counties don’t offer that but at the same time I’m not excusing that our salaries are not low because they are low and going forward as chairman and as a commissioner — and I think my colleagues would agree with me — salaries going forward are going to be a priority for all of our employees because we do have dedicated employees who are committed to what they’re doing.”
The board chair understands the sheriff’s position and how he is supposed to look out for his employees. “He’s charged with that responsibility of looking out for his hundreds of employees. If he failed to do that then he’s neglecting his duties. He’s gone above and beyond because he’s looking out for other employees, too.”
Lifting an exemption
One of the items expected to come up in future discussions is the law enforcement exemption, which Tripp said is a state law which gives a county the option to manage law enforcement pay, especially in terms of overtime “If they lifted it, it would definitely be an improvement for deputy salaries.”
Said Bryant: “We’re going to be dealing with that as it relates to deputy sheriffs going forward.”
Tripp replied, “Lifting the law enforcement exemption, if that’s what the county chooses to do in their thought processes, it would definitely help. Nothing has been done wrong by applying the law enforcement exemption so I take that as a positive step forward when they are considering lifting that law enforcement exemption which will most definitely assist my deputies.”
The issue has been discussed before, Bryant said. “This is nothing new. We’ve talked about it some. I’m not sure what the time frame will be but it’s going to be a priority along with salaries for all employees.”
Bryant said he’s not sure whether Monday’s board meeting, when the budget is scheduled to be adopted, will bring any immediate changes. “I don’t have a crystal ball. Monday is possible but going forward and prior to the end of the year that will probably be very possible when we can come back with some type of amendment and definitely going into the new fiscal year.”
Tripp said it wouldn’t be fair to discuss whether there are already percentage increases in mind. “I don’t think it’s fair to discuss that at this time from my perspective because that certainly is a commissioners’ decision to make as a body.”
Tripp said, “It’s my job to present suggestions on how to improve things, not so much just salaries but things in general.”
In 2015 the sheriff presented a three-year plan of how salaries could be adjusted. “They do have that and have been studying that. Basically it’s a three-year plan to improve salaries so it doesn’t cost all that much at the same time. It addresses the point of catching us up to where we’re not 25 percent behind other law enforcement agencies.”
Bryant said the sheriff, Chief Deputy Scott Hall and Major Neil Aycock “have looked at and have really worked outside the box in trying to save the county money. They have used certain drug money for equipment, other supplies et cetera. To Wes’s credit we haven’t communicated like we’re supposed to in some instances but going forward we are going to communicate. He’s very specific about what he’s buying.”
Tripp said federal forfeiture money has a checks and balances system established. “That money is deposited in a county account and it’s earmarked federal forfeiture money. That money’s been used to save thousands and thousands of dollars to supplement my county budget.”
The forfeiture money has bought the sheriff’s office “much needed body cameras, it’s bought much needed tasers and we’ve even bought cars with this money. That is a very valuable resource we have. We have that based on the hard work of Captain Anzell Harris and the job his drug division is doing.”
The sheriff’s office in the near future is going to explore, with permission of the board, grants through the highway safety program “so we can look at bringing in other revenues,” Tripp said.
Bottom to top
Bryant expects the salary discussions to “really heat up” when the board convenes for its annual retreat in December. “There’s going to be some discussions prior to then, there may be some action prior to then.”
But the chairman expects, at least in his opinion, “We’ll be looking at mostly the lower end salaries. We’re going to be looking at starting pay for law enforcement as well as other employees in the county. What we’ve got to do in order to play catchup is we have to strategize with that and really look at the lower end people.”
Said Bryant: “I think we do very well in my opinion with what we’ve got to work with but as a county commissioner I’m not happy with him (Tripp) being the high sheriff in the county and his deputies next to him are the lowest paid. That’s not right and that’s got to be fixed.”
It’s not only the sheriff’s office which serves as training grounds for other agencies, the chairman said. “DSS (department of social services) and all those other people lose people, too. We have good employees. Our employees do a great job and we’ve got to reward them for what they do. We’ve got a lot of good fringe benefits but we’ve got to work on the salary. There’s no excuse for that.”
Tripp said his rallying cry has always been centered on starting pay. “We need to raise starting pay so that’s looking after the lower end. Never ever have I asked for Wes Tripp to get a raise. That’s some misconception out there, too. My argument has always been starting pay. Since I’ve been sheriff since 2013 I’ve said we need to raise starting pay.”
Bryant said the starting pay issue is tied to recruitment and retention.”The number one thing is pay. We’ve got to look at pay. We’ve got just about everything right but the pay part.”
Tripp stressed his argument for better pay is for all county departments. “If you think about it, every county department deals with public safety in some way, fashion or form.”
That includes public utilities workers out at 3 in the morning fixing water mains; Tripp’s civilian staff answering phones; DSS “and the job they do providing assistance to our much needed county residents is public safety. That’s why I’ve been an advocate for all county employees.”
“The county is juggling a lot of balls,” Bryant said, including the jail issue.
He said Northampton County Sheriff Jack Smith looks out for the county when it comes to the cost of housing Halifax County inmates in Jackson. “They could really sock it to us but they don’t. We’ve got to think about the new jail. We’ve got to think about Weldon High School. We’re just in conversations about a lot of other things in the county but going forward the top priority is still going to be salaries for all employees.”
The county is looking at the possibility Odom Correctional Center outside Jackson may eventually close, Tripp said.
The county is checking into that information and seeing if it’s possible to enter into a regional agreement with Smith should the prison close, he said. “That would save our taxpayers that money on jail expansion.”
The county is looking at departments and seeing where excesses may be, Bryant said.
There have already been conversations with County Manager Tony Brown and Deputy County Manager Dia Denton on this. “There are things we are required to do and things we are not required to do such as outside agencies,” Bryant said. “We’ve got to take care of things that need to be taken care of. We’re looking at every program, we’re looking at every employee that works with the county and we’re looking at ways we can cut. I just believe we need to examine even closer than what we’ve done already. I know how managers and supervisors are territorial but as a manager and board of commissioners we’ve got to look at the whole picture and what’s best for the entire county.”
Tripp believes help for employees is coming. “There’s no doubt in my mind that moving forward I think all county employees will see some improvement. The most important thing about the meeting last night was lines of communication were opened and I feel with all my heart that they will stay open.”
Said Bryant: “I concur with that.”