After the handling of the controversial landfill issue and the completion of consideration of zoning matters at last week’s meeting of the Board of Commissioners, Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown sought permission to address the Board regarding his request for increased funding for his department to enable him to offer a competitive pay scale to his deputies, jailers and other employees. After some confusion regarding the agenda, the Board of Commissioners failed to amend the agenda to allow Sheriff Brown to present his case. I referred to this as confusion to give the Board members the benefit of the doubt. None of us would like to believe that the failure to hear the Sheriff had anything to do with politics. Not when the issue at hand directly affects the ability of the Sheriff to provide for the physical safety of the citizens of Newton County.
In the priority of needs and concerns of all people, high on that list is the need to feel secure in one’s person and property. Many would argue that government should have very few functions, but none would deny that chief among those tasks government should assume is the maintenance of order and the enforcement of the laws enacted to protect its citizens. To carry out that police function in our County, we elect a Sheriff and entrust to him the mandate to protect the citizens of our County along with the job of carrying out the processes and orders of our Court system, maintaining our County jail operation and providing security for our public buildings.
To carry out those daunting tasks the Sheriff employs a work force which along with the Newton County Fire Services Department makes up the public safety component of our County government. From these police, guards and fire fighters we ask much at great personal peril to them. Yet we have failed to provide a living wage pay scale which provides sufficient compensation to attract and retain the work force to provide the public safety we rightfully demand.
As a result we have a revolving door situation where we recruit our public safety personnel, pay for the state mandated training and certification, provide them with a short period of on the job experience and then watch them move to other police and fire departments with more competitive compensation programs. Thus we carry the recruitment, training, certification and early career on the job training costs at great costs to the taxpayers so that other programs can pick up our best and most promising employees.
Sheriff Brown has previously made this argument to the Board of Commissioners and as the time approaches for the finalization of another fiscal year budget, he sought to once again make his case for increased funding that will allow him to carry out his mandate to serve and protect the citizens of Newton County by providing the main tool necessary for the recruitment and retention of the quality employees he needs – a competitive pay scale.
The Sheriff, one of four Constitutional officers, is not alone in his urgent call for a plan to address the compensation of County employees. For almost six years now, Newton County has sought to balance its budget shortfalls from the shrinkage of tax receipts which occurred in the Great Recession on the backs of the County employee workforce. Our county workers from all departments have been called upon to endure a seemingly never ending pay freeze, elimination of jobs and the imposition of furlough days.
The consequences of this inattention to the plight of our greatest County asset- our professional staff throughout County government – has been the degradation of our employee base by the loss of many of our most capable employees and the disintegration of the morale of those who remain. If the underlying cause is addressed immediately, the effects will linger with us for years to come as we recruit and train new personnel and then wait for them to achieve maximum operational efficiency through experience. The professionalization of our management staff will likewise lag our decision to recruit, vet and employ managers matched to direct the task to which they are assigned.
The Sheriff, the County Manager, the Department heads and the other Constitutional officers are reasonable people and understand that it will take time to reverse course, budget for a sustainable employee work force, appropriate the necessary funds and attract the best people to fill our decimated ranks. However, they also know that the longest journey begins with a single step. That first step is what Sheriff Brown wanted to discuss with the Board of Commissioners. He and all our County employees need to see evidence that the Board understands the peril of continuing down our current path and is ready to deal with this issue with some sense of urgency.
Like so many other issues which have reared their ugly heads in a series of contentious meetings during this last year, the instigating factor is simply the refusal of the Board to engage in mutual conversation with the other players regarding the current state of county government prior to the particular issue becoming a crisis. Whether it is the landfill, the procurement of legal services, the 2050 Plan, the development of a realistic water plan or the funding of a competitive compensation package for county employees, citizens expect and are beginning to demand a more inclusive conversation by the Board with the public, the employees and now the Sheriff.
Neither the Sheriff nor other county managers should be forced to beg the Board of Commissioners for a spot on their agenda to discuss budgetary needs. The Board should encourage that communication. Once they know the facts, and the facts here are pretty telling, they should work to formulate a plan which does not place our employees, public safety or otherwise, at the very end of the priority list. To do so is to jeopardize the security we all expect County government to provide.