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Do low salaries impact public safety in Newton County?
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COVINGTON, Ga. – According to Newton County Human Resources Director Keyra Fray, there are currently 32 vacant positions in the Newton County Sheriff’s Office (NCSO). Sheriff Ezell Brown said low salaries are a main contributor to the personnel shortage among deputies.

Based on statistics obtained by The Covington News from the Covington-Newton County 911 Center, the personnel shortages may now be affecting response times for deputies responding to 9-1-1 calls in the county.

According to the numbers, in 2016 there were 61,488 9-1-1 calls for service for NCSO.  On 25,335 or 41 percent of those calls, there was no deputy available to respond.

The 2017 numbers show the trend getting worse. Through April 30 of this year, of the 18,951 9-1-1 calls for Sheriff’s Office service, there have been 9,571 instances when no deputy was available to dispatch. That’s slightly above 50 percent of the calls so far this year where a call had to be held because no patrol unit was available.

911 Center Director Mike Smith said when a call comes in and there is no unit available, the dispatcher notifies a road supervisor who determines if it is a higher priority call than what has been dispatched. Many times, deputies responding to one call are diverted to a higher priority call. 

Brown said the situation is taxing on the road supervisors who have to make the right decision every time about which call gets a higher priority. He also said managing multiple situations and responding from call to call without a break can be stressful for deputies.

Smith said the situation also puts a strain on operators in the 911 Center. They have to keep up with calls being held, while continuing to take new calls. Also, according to Smith, when people call back a second or third time back to see when a deputy is going to arrive, new callers might not be able to get through right away.

Numbers provided by NCSO spokesman Sgt. Michael Cunningham indicate that from May 25, 2016 through May 25, 2017, NCSO responded to 55,064 calls for service. Among those call were nine arsons, 119 assaults, 560 burglaries, 1,142 larcenies, three homicides, 43 robberies and 97 car thefts. Cunningham said NCSO has 40 deputies assigned to four shifts to answer the calls.

District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said based on calculations, that 40 should be almost double what it is. He said there should be 19 deputies assigned to four 12-hour shifts each answering calls in the county. He said low pay added to constantly going from call to call without a break can lead to burn out.

A recent pay market analysis conducted by the by the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) showed deputy pay in Newton County averages 19 percent below market. Even though the county’s population of approximately 107,000 citizens is more than Rockdale County’s 89,500 people or Walton County’s approximately 88,500, starting salaries for Newton County’s deputies lag behind both counties. According to the Newton County Human Resources website, starting pay for deputies ranges from $14.43 to $14.94 per hour. Walton County’s website lists starting pay at $16.06 to $16.67 per hour for deputies and $14.83 for detention officers. Rockdale County’s site lists a salary of $34,320 for deputies, which rounds out to $16.35 per hour.

The BOC heard budget proposals which include public safety salary increases from County Manager Lloyd Kerr and County Finance Director Nicole Cross at its May 24 work session.

One proposal includes a 1.17 percent increase in the county’s millage rate. That proposal would provide all non-public safety county employees with a 5 percent pay raise. Sworn Deputies and Fire Service Operations personnel would receive a market adjustment. The proposals also include funds transfers into the county’s cash reserve and fund balance, which, along with employee raises, were early budget priorities for commissioners.

Salary increases are addressed different ways in each proposal as proposed tax increases decrease. One proposal calls for a .88 percent millage rate increase with all county employees receiving a 5 percent raise.

The next budget work session is scheduled for Tuesday, May 30 at 6 p.m. in the Newton County Historic Courthouse.