By Charlie Boothe (Bluefield Daily Telegraph)
A move is afoot in Virginia to give deputies a long-awaited pay raise.
“The Sheriffs’ Association has been working hard on that, and we’ve been talking to several state senators and legislators about it,” said Tazewell County Sheriff Brian Hieatt. “There was supposed to be a raise for this year, but it fell through. Everybody was told it was built in the budget and you would get it.”
Hieatt said the low salaries for deputies can put them on food stamps and makes it difficult in several areas, including recruiting and retention.
“It’s hard when you are talking about recruiting when you look at the pay,” he said. “It’s hard to retain as well.”
Hieatt said being a deputy, like being any police officer, is dangerous.
“When you look at the things deputies have to do, and the things that have gotten so dangerous, you are asking them to put on a badge and carry a gun and risk their life,” he said. “And we don’t even have money for a pay increase.”
Hieatt said a deputy with a couple of children would be eligible for food stamps based on the current salary structure in the region.
The starting salary in this region for a deputy is just over $31,000, he said, adding that deputies are paid with state funds.
The Virginia Compensation Board funds constitutional offices like sheriff’s departments, commonwealth’s attorneys and courts.
“But some counties give supplements,” he said. “But no supplements are given in Tazewell County or I don’t think the other counties around here. What we get is what the state provides.”
Hieatt said he is not criticizing the county.
“What counties will do if they have the money is a pay raise,” he said. “But if the money is not there we are counting on the state (for pay raises).”
Hieatt said Tazewell County has about 60 deputies and the training standards are the same as for the state police, who are in line for a pay hike in the next fiscal year.
“Training standards are the same for all police officers,” he said. “Those standards have been met and done at the academy.”
Hieatt said counties have be very selective who they hire to protect the public.
There’s another reason why pay raises are important besides recognizing the fact officers put their lives on the line.
“It (their jobs) also involves their entire family,” he said, adding that it’s not unusual for the homes of police officers to be approached by someone relating in a negative way to their jobs.
“This is not a job that at the end of the day you can leave it behind,” he said. “You can still be confronted.”
Families also make sacrifices because an officer is basically on call and can be called to duty at about any time.
Hieatt said county supplements can often bring those starting salaries up in the $35,000-$36,000 range, providing more competition to counties who don’t add any supplement at all.
According to a press release posted on the Virginia Sheriff’s Association website, many sheriffs are getting involved in the process of putting pressure on the state for pay raises for deputies.
“This year has been one of the deadliest years ever for law enforcement officers; 120 officers have lost their lives (nationwide) in the line of duty through Nov. 10,” said Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan, president of the state association. “It is time our legislators and our localities step up to make this disparity in pay a priority.”
According to the release, a starting deputy sheriff with a spouse and two children qualifies for food stamps in localities that do not supplement local sheriffs’ salaries. The starting annual salary of a deputy sheriff is $31,009, or $2,584 per month. The minimum qualifying salary for federal assistance is $2,628, if the deputy is married and has two dependent children.
“This is shameful and has evolved because the General Assembly approved a budget with pay raises that were eliminated by a revenue trigger,” the release said. With state revenue not meeting the amount budgeted this year, planned raises for deputies, teachers and other state employees were cancelled.
“During the prior year, all other state-funded law enforcement officers received a 3 percent across-the-board raise, compression raises and special raises, depending on what state law enforcement agency is involved,” the release said.
“The job of a deputy isn’t getting any easier, but the recognition by those responsible for providing adequate compensation leaves much to be desired. The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association has placed deputy and staff compensation as its top priority to address the current salary discrepancy that exists in the Commonwealth,”
Hieatt said everyone involved will continue to put pressure on the state to provide those raises.
As a local comparison with other professionals, the starting salary for a teacher in Tazewell County with up to four years experience is $36,365 for the current school year. The starting salary in Mercer County for a first-year teacher is $31,675.