Sheriff's deputies seeking raises

Recruiting and retention hurt by low pay, some say

Last increase was 7% in 2000

Talks start in October

contract effective July 1

Anne Arundel

August 25, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County sheriff's deputies, complaining that they are badly underpaid compared with other public safety workers, have begun working to seek a hefty raise in a contract that will start July 1.

"The guys want to know, is it our turn?" said David Belisle, the Teamsters shop steward for the deputies, who begin contract negotiations in October. "It is our turn."

In 2000, deputies ratified a three-year contract accepting an overall 7 percent pay raise, but many felt dejected.

Other public safety officers got double-digit raises that year: 14 percent to 19 percent for county firefighters, and an average of at least 17 percent for police officers.

The 54 deputies recently have begun preparing for union meetings by planning their potential bargaining positions for talks on the contract.

With starting salaries at $29,066, deputies are paid about $100 a year less than county jail guards and about $6,400 less than police officers.

Deputies say their salaries are too low to entice young, qualified applicants.

The department could lose its eight most-experienced deputies, about one-seventh of the sworn staff, to full retirement -- 20 years of service and 50 or older -- within five years.

An additional 32 could leave through other retirement options, but with reduced retirement benefits, according to figures supplied by the sheriff's office.

Deputies, who must be state-certified as police and who have arrest powers, say their job responsibilities are comparable to those of other front-line law enforcement officials.

They serve all of the county's Circuit Court and District Court warrants, domestic violence and peace orders; they escort prisoners; and they provide Circuit Court security.

Many they deal with have thumbed their noses at police and the courts, such as those who do not pay child support, fail to show up for court or violate terms of their probation.

"If you see the police coming into the neighborhood, they may be on routine patrol. But if you see us coming into the neighborhood, somebody is going to jail," Belisle said.

Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, who is seeking a third term, has been advocating pay raises for his uniformed staff to County Executive Janet S. Owens and others in her administration, saying hiring -- let alone retention -- is a major frustration.

"We've got a serious hiring problem," said Johnson, who has 58 authorized positions but has never had a full staff.

"We're not getting what we think is the cream of the crop because we don't offer a better salary."

Recruiting is so troublesome that only seven of the 20 applicants who replied to a job posting qualified to take the written test after a basic screening.

Recruiting, retention

By the interview stage, Johnson was down to five candidates, and two of those got no further.

Now, after background checks, a psychiatric evaluation and medical tests, one applicant remains. And he may withdraw in favor of another job.

Encouraging retired Anne Arundel County police officers to become deputies by easing pension restrictions has yielded only two deputies largely because of the lure of other county programs, more-lucrative job offers and the comparatively easier work elsewhere.

"I am sure they are going to ask for an increase in salary, and we will negotiate in good faith with them, and we will see what we can do within our parameters," said Mark M. Atkisson, county personnel director, whose office will negotiate contracts that will start in July with five of the nine unions in the county.

Atkisson said the county would do a market study in the fall and look at such issues as hiring, retention and retirement.

It also will look at salaries elsewhere, though each jurisdiction's sheriff's department has different responsibilities, ranging from handling all to no police, prisoner and court duties.

"The county executive feels very strongly about our public safety officials and that includes the Sheriff's Department," said Owens' spokesman Matt Diehl.

`Mind over matter'

Deputies contend that because there are so few of them, it's hard to generate the kind of extensive public support that gets officials to go to bat for them.

Their limited public push for higher salaries in 2000 went nearly unnoticed amid the clamor and letter-writing campaigns by hundreds of police officers and firefighters.

"It's mind over matter. They don't mind cause we don't matter," said Robert Disney-Coker, assistant shop steward.

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