Caroline deputies ask for step increases
PRESTON — Several Caroline County sheriff’s deputies and their supporters spoke at a public budget hearing Tuesday, March 13, at the Preston fire hall, about the need for the Caroline County commissioners to fund longevity pay for the agency in the fiscal year 2019 budget.
Justin Reibly, president of the Caroline County Fraternal Order of Police, said step increases for deputies were frozen 11 years ago; since then, deputies have received no pay raises other than a few small cost of living increases provided for all county employees.
As a result, the county’s sheriff’s office ranks near the bottom of all local law enforcement agencies, and deputies with many years of service are not making more than deputies with far less experience.
Reibly asked the commissioners to consider adding $252,000 to the sheriff’s office’s budget in FY19, to fund step increases for all deputies with at least five years of service.
If not, Reibly said, the commissioners could find the county’s law enforcement agency in crisis, when there are not enough deputies to respond to calls for service.
“This is about retention,” Reibly said. “A large number of employees are already looking elsewhere. There are other issues but the majority of the reason is pay.”
Reibly said he is one of seven deputies with conditional offers from other agencies.
“A lot of us are from Caroline, myself included,” Reibly said. “We enjoy what we do and want to keep working here, but we can’t afford it.”
The commissioners heard from several other deputies who are in the process of interviewing with the Maryland State Police or Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police.
RJ Helmer said he was hired by the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office in 2013; he came from the Cambridge Police Department, but left when it was going through a seven-year freeze of pay raises.
Helmer said the similar situation in Caroline County has led to a “revolving door” of deputies during his five years with the agency. He now has a conditional offer with the Department of Natural Resources Police.
“Retention needs to be at the top of the list,” Helmer said. “Providing good officers (to serve the county’s citizens) should be at the top of your
Gannon Lyons, who was hired by the sheriff’s office in 2013, said he has completed the majority of the process to be hired elsewhere.
As a resident of Caroline County, with a wife and three young children who also live in the county, Lyons said he wants to see the “revolving door” issue in the sheriff’s office addressed.
“I’m leaving because of the lack of longevity pay,” Lyons said. “I can drive 20 minutes and, in a couple of years, make as much as my supervisors here with 20-plus years of experience do.
“But I will still live here, and I’m here as someone who wants to see it get better here.”
Jake Rideout, who has five years of service with the sheriff’s office, said he had planned to spend his entire career in Caroline County but is in the process of leaving for the Maryland State Police.
“Looking at my supervisors’ pay, state troopers with five or six years of experience make as much as they do,” Rideout said. “They will all leave if they’re not paid what they deserve.”
Bryan Peris said he came to the sheriff’s office from the Maryland Transit Authority Police in 2006. He also is looking elsewhere now.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else, but I’m trying to make a living, doing a dangerous job,” Peris said. “I don’t think the sheriff’s office would recover from what could happen (if the step increases are not funded.)”
Thomas Hurley, president of the Cambridge Fraternal Order of Police, said the Cambridge Police Department still is feeling the effects of losing 32 officers in seven years — only four of those to retirement — when it froze pay raises.
“The only (officers) left to promote are the ones you’ve had a little trouble with, which can then lead to lawsuits,” Hurley said.
The county needs three things in place to maintain a quality sheriff’s office, Hurley said: recruitment, retention and good retirement benefits.
“I don’t know what price you can put on your children, your grandchildren, your property,” Hurley said. “You have to take care of your deputies now. Cambridge will take years to recover.”
Federalsburg Police Chief Donald Nagel said he supported the longevity pay request for the sheriff’s office.
“Increasing public safety is most important for bringing in new residents,” Nagel said, which in turn increases the tax base.
However, all law enforcement agencies are having trouble attracting quality applicants now, Nagel said.
“No one wants to be police,” Nagel said. “Or they do, but they can’t pass the test. Or they pass the test, but they then move on (to another agency.) They use town police as a stepping stone.”
Steve Stouffer said he left the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office 16 years ago, also because of pay.
“The county said, ‘If you want to make more money elsewhere, go ahead,’” Stouffer said.
Stouffer said with the improving economy, fewer people are applying for law enforcement jobs. That leaves an agency like Caroline’s, with low pay, ripe for poaching of its experienced officers, who have already been trained on the county’s dime.
“You will lose all that experience,” Stouffer said. “This has to be a priority.”
Representatives of other agencies that work with deputies also spoke in their support.
Cara Calloway, supervisor of child protective services with the Caroline County Department of Social Services, said sheriff’s deputies are among the most well-trained and competent officers when handling cases of child abuse and neglect.
“They respond at all hours; they work with our agency to complete training,” Calloway said. “I have seen the effects of incompetent law enforcement.”
Joe Riley, interim state’s attorney for Caroline County, and Jonathan Newell, former state’s attorney and current Caroline County circuit court judge, both spoke of deputies’ professionalism when working with prosecutors.
“We need someone in court who can do the job, because citizens, when they ask for help, expect competence,” Newell said.
Sheriff Randy Bounds first thanked the commissioners for committing last year to a new building for the sheriff’s office.
Bounds said he also appreciates the cost of living increases the sheriff’s office has received over the years, but the freeze on step increases has led to a “pay compression,” resulting in deputies with 11 years of service making the same as those with five.
The current 1.75 percent pay increase for county employees proposed in the FY19 budget does not fit in with the sheriff’s office’s pay scale, Bounds said.
After the public comments, commissioners said they would take the request into consideration over the next several weeks as they balance the budget.
“We don’t have unlimited revenue, but we certainly have unlimited requests,” said Commissioner Dan Franklin. “It’s hard not to make any one agency feel slighted.”
Franklin said he was in law enforcement for 16 years.
“Being a cop is a thankless job with long hours,” he said. “No one gets in it to get rich.”
Franklin said the commissioners would have to do some prioritizing.
“We have done what we’ve had to do when there is a grave need, whether it is popular or not,” he said.
President Larry Porter said since he took office in 2010, the commissioners have been committed to public safety, creating a new office for emergency dispatchers, adding four more deputies to the sheriff’s office with a fifth proposed in the coming fiscal year and committing to a new building for the sheriff’s office.
“It’s been made very clear tonight (the longevity pay issue) is very important,” Porter said. “My concern is we will work very hard this year (to meet the request), and next year you will come back to ask for more money, or you’re going to leave.”
Porter said the $252,000 request represents about a 1-cent increase on the property tax rate.
“We have to pay people within our revenue stream; we are required by law to balance the budget,” Porter said.
Vice President Wilbur Levengood said the sheriff’s office is not the only county agency that has been hurt by pay compression, or “bunching.”
“Public works is still only at 75 percent staffed,” Levengood said.
Porter said the commissioners will hold several budget workshops over the coming weeks, all open to the public.
As it stands, the commissioners have about $355,000 more in requests for funding than they do in projected revenue for FY19.
A second public budget hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 8, at the Greensboro Volunteer Fire Company community hall, 13781 Greensboro Road, Greensboro.