COVINGTON, Ga. – Shortages in the ranks of Newton County public safety personnel have nearly drained the county’s overtime budget before the fiscal year is half over.
According to numbers presented to the Newton County Board of Commissioners at its Jan. 8 meeting, the county spent $889,221.66 - or 99 percent - of its budgeted overtime for the whole year during the first 11 pay periods of FY 2019.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz questioned the high overtime expenditure.
“Why are we spending so much on overtime to this point? I mean, we’re at 99 percent,” she said.
County Finance Director Nicole Cross told Schulz the overtime is due to public safety personnel shortages.
“Generally, that would fall on public safety,” she said. “Due to their number of vacant positions they are often having to use overtime to fill their staffs.”
So far this budget year, the Newton County Jail has used $349,826.71 in overtime to maintain staffing. Keeping deputies on the road has required an expenditure of $372,373.89 in overtime. Both divisions were budgeted $300,000 each for overtime in the current county budget.
Newton County Fire Services has spent $123,239.20 of its budgeted $249,200 so far.
In an email, Cross said public safety overtime is expected and should not create any budget problems for the county.
“Public Safety has budgeted for overtime and if/when they exceed that budget they are normally able to fund from the open position salary savings. We currently do not expect a budget problem,” she said.
Cross said the county is in the process of preparing a mid-year budget analysis that will include an analysis of budget and overtime.
“This mid-year analysis will be complete and presented at the Feb. 5 meeting. If we perceive an issue and see the need for additional funding or amendments, we will present at that time,” she said.
According to its Human Resources department, Newton County is currently down a combined 83 firefighters, deputies and detention officers.
In an email to The Covington News, Sheriff Ezell Brown said his department is still recovering from staffing shortages caused by the economic downturn at the end of the last decade and county budget cuts.
“We are still struggling from the downturn of the economy back in 2010 and the significant cuts and layoffs made to prior budgets,” he said. “Since our salary rate has increased, I believe we are on the right track.”
Brown said the overtime is necessary right now to make sure his department can keep the county safe.
"Our responsibility is to maintain an adequate number of personnel to ensure we carry out our fundamental duties," he said, "That is to serve and protect the persons and property, to include those visiting and incarcerated in the jails."
Brown said he believes the number of employees leaving has slowed citing only six separations - two in law enforcement and four in detention- over the last four months. But he indicated that recruiting new deputies is getting harder.
“With everything that’s happening around law enforcement, from salaries to criticism, the question that many are asking, ‘Is it worth it?’” he said. “The lifestyle is difficult for a lot of people and it is not an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job with weekends off. With the younger generation, most are seeking a work-life balance and flexibility. But we work nights, holidays, weekends, 24 hours and operate 365 days a year.”
Brown also said he believes staffing for his department has turned the corner.
“As we look back from 2017 up unto 2018 prior to receiving our pay increase, the workforce is beginning to stabilize,” he said, “The trend of resignations has decreased within the past year and a half. There have been some to leave and return after the increase was implemented.”
Fire Chief Michael Conner said his department uses overtime only if it’s necessary to staff trucks when the number of firefighters on duty falls below minimum levels.
He said the current minimum staffing levels for NCFS are 15 personnel for each of its three shifts with two firefighters assigned to each of the county’s 7 fire apparatuses and one battalion chief. The National Fire Protection Association recommends six firefighters per apparatus with minimum of four per truck.
And like the sheriff’s office, Conner said his department is having trouble finding recruits.
“We just can’t find people who what to be a firefighter,” he said.
In addition to a lack of applicants, Conner said that the physical and academic rigors of the fire academy and EMT class cause his department to lose about a third of its recruits once they are hired and in training.
He said the current fire academy class, slated to graduate at the end of the month, started out with 20 recruits but is now down to 11.
Conner also pointed out that 21 of the 34 vacant positions currently in his department are positions created to staff the county’s as yet to be built fire station 8 and a new piece of equipment being purchased.
Prior to a round of raises implemented by the county in its FY 2018 budget the starting pay range for deputies was $14.43 to $14.94 per hour. It is now $36,971 for a deputy trainee and $39,439 for a deputy sheriff. Fire recruits start at $32,034 with a certified firefighter/EMT making $36,971 and $41,907 as a paramedic.
Commissioners began raising salaries for all county employees and especially first responders in the 2018 county budget after low wages were seen to be a detriment to recruiting and retaining qualified employees.
Brown said that unlike other county departments, public safety is a 24-hour operation with no days off.
“Whereas, other departments in the county close down at 5:00 p.m., weekends and holidays, public safety work continues on 24 hours, 7 days per week, 365 day a year and does not have the leisure of cutting off at the end of a shift if they’re on a call or calls to be answered,” he said.
According to numbers provided by the finance department, Newton County spent $2,057,763.04 in overtime during FY 2018.