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Virginia Sheriffs’ Association
The Voice of Virginia’s Sheriffs & Deputies

By Paul Collins (Martinsville Bulletin)

Over the last 20 months, the Martinsville Sheriff’s Office lost 17 of its 48 officers. Five of those retired and the rest left for other jobs. Most of them, Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper said, went to higher-paying law enforcement agencies and some went to the private sector.

“We’ve seen a marked increase (in turnover),” Draper said, adding that his department’s turnover rate stands at about 35 percent.

The problem isn’t always finding replacements, as all of those vacancies were filled during the past year. Part of it involves all of the institutional knowledge you lose when one of the senior staff leaves, only to be replaced with a rookie out of the academy. It’s an issue that not just Martinsville, but the sheriff’s in Patrick and Henry counties both see. They all feel Virginia needs to increase its pay for sheriff’s deputies, in order to keep people in the job.

They’re not alone. The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association has put out a paper called “Compensation Crisis,” pointing out there were no increases in state pay for sheriff’s deputies from 2007 to 2013, a 3 percent pay raise in 2013 and a 2 percent pay raise in 2015. Compounding that problem are the lack of what is called “compression pay” (or longevity pay, or extra pay based of years of experience), and turnover. Fiscal year 2015 saw an average turnover for deputy sheriffs of 21.3 percent in their first year, 12.9 percent for deputies beyond one year of service and an overall average for the group of 14.7 percent. Turnover for ranked deputies was about 13.6 percent. (These turnover rates preceded a Sept. 1 salary increase raising the entry level salary for first-year deputies.)

As for benefits, Draper points to the fact that back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were no co-pays for employee health insurance, but now the monthly cost for an employee is about $145; an employee plus one, about $700; and for family, about $1,220.

The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association paper says Virginia’s budgets for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 included $3.6 million in general funds the first year and $8.7 million in general funds in the second year to fund a salary compression plan (longevity pay) for sheriff’s offices and regional jails. “Effective January 1, 2017, the plan provides to sworn employees of sheriffs’ offices and regional jails with three years or more of continuous service $80 for each full year of service, to a maximum of 30 years.”

It adds: “For non-sworn employees, the plan provides $65 for each full year of service for those with three or more years of continuous service, to a maximum of 30 years. The funding for the salary compression plan is held in reserve and is contingent upon FY 2016 revenues not being greater than 1 percent below the official forecast, based on the comptroller’s preliminary fiscal year-end analysis.”

It also says the budget included a total of $190 million over the two years for a 3 percent compensation adjustment for state employees and a 2 percent compensation adjustment for state-supported local employees. It also, includes a total of $6.3 million over the two years for a salary compression (longevity pay) initiative for state police. “The funds will be available for the compensation adjustment and salary compression initiative contingent upon FY2016 revenues not being more than 1 percent below the official forecast, based on the comptroller’s preliminary fiscal year-end analysis.”

But that was before revenues came up short. Now, with Virginia facing a $1.5 billion shortfall over the next two years, Draper is concerned those initiatives will go away.

Dollars and cents

An Oct. 13 news release from the Office of the Governor stated: “Total general fund revenues rose by 1.7 percent in fiscal year 2016, for a total of $18 billion, but fell short of the official forecast of 3.2 percent growth by $268.9 million. The majority of the shortfall was due to withholding and sales tax collections. In addition, transfers to the general fund fell $10.4 million short of the forecast. The combined shortfall including general fund revenue and transfers in fiscal year 2016 totaled $279.3 million.”

It added: “In order to reach the intended budget goal the administration implemented three primary strategies. First, the state budget contained an automatic trigger based on the revenue forecast that removed $125.1 million for pay increases. Second, there is a proposal to transfer $392.3 million from the revenue stabilization fund, as permitted by state law. Third, there are pledges from state agencies in 2016 that provide an additional $23.5 million in savings.

The news release listed a number of other measures as well to meet the intended budget goal. Calls to the governor’s office went unreturned by presstime.

The sheriff’s association paper includes a chart with a pay comparison for state law enforcement versus county deputies who are state supported, using Patrick County sheriff’s employees as an example. To clarify, the state pay doesn’t change with different counties. The only difference is the amount of the supplement, meaning that if a deputy wants to make more at a certain level, then they’re forced to go to counties that can afford to give more locally.

As of Sept. 1, 2015, state pay for a starting deputy sheriff was $31,009, increased to $34,299 with the local supplement in Patrick County. That’s compared to $36,207 for a state trooper and $35,700 as a starting salary for a game warden. After one year, state pay increases to $32,423 for a deputy sheriff. With a shrinking local supplement, the final salary remained the same at $34,299. A state trooper after the first year, by comparison, gets an increase to $40,482. After five years, a deputy sheriff makes $32,712 in state pay, for a total of $35,331 after the local supplement is added in. A state trooper with five years of experience makes $43,268.

After the five year mark, the pay for a deputy sheriff doesn’t change for more than seven years. A deputy with 10 years on the job in Patrick County makes the same as a fifth-year. A deputy with 12 years of experience also makes the same as someone with just five years on the job. By comparison, a state trooper with 12 years in makes $53,300. The only increase for deputies comes at the 20-year mark, where they make $37,260 in state pay and $40,224 with the local supplement. At this same point, a trooper with 20 years of experience brings home $60,100 in Virginia.

It’s a problem Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry also deals with. In most communities, deputies are the front-line of defense, especially in counties, and law-enforcement protection goes 24-7, Perry said.

“We aren’t having as much problem as some places with retention,” Perry said. He said once in a while officers leave his department for higher-paying jobs, but not often. Most tend to stay, in part because they have families here, he added.

The department currently has three vacancies, which is about average, he said. The sheriff’s office has 125 full-time sworn officers (meaning they have arrest power and carry a gun).

Perry said some people may not choose to go into law enforcement because of not only the pay issue, but also because of the increase in violence toward law enforcement officers in recent years.

Perry said his department has to work harder to find officers who are qualified and have the proper temperament when the economy improves and better paying jobs are available in the private sector.

Left with a thin staff

In an email to the Martinsville Bulletin, Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith said that since 1978, 38 deputies have been killed in the line of duty in Virginia, which he says is the highest per capita number among any specific group of law enforcement officers. Smith says the reason for this is because deputies often respond to dangerous calls, such as domestic and other disturbances, alone.

According to Smith, nearly all those deaths occurred in the 86 rural Virginia counties where sheriff’s deputies provide primary law enforcement coverage. That includes places like Henry and Patrick counties, among others. In those counties, the state funds about 2,200 law enforcement deputy positions, which is based on the populations of the individual counties. Smith believes that leaves most counties very thin in law enforcement coverage.

“Sometimes it is overwhelming for our deputies. We may go two hours in the middle of the night with no call for service, and suddenly a lone patrol deputy will get a domestic disturbance where shots have been fired, and he has to respond 20 or 30 miles alone because the only other deputy on patrol is tied up with a mental health transport,” Smith said. “Deputies have always been the lowest paid law enforcement officers in the state, and the disparity is growing. There has never been a priority to pay our people, and it has now come to a head.”

Smith said that no other law enforcement agency comes close to matching the 21 percent turnover rate that exists statewide among sheriff’s offices. (He was referring to the fiscal year 2015 average turnover rate for deputies in their first year. See more details about turnover above.) “That should be enough to concern anyone,” he said.

Two Patrick County deputies have resigned in the last two months, one being an eight-year veteran sergeant who left for better pay at a local manufacturing facility, Smith said.

“Pay is the main reason people leave. A 12-year veteran deputy who makes $36,000 per year loses hope after a while,” Smith said.

He noted that deputies received a total of 5 percent in state pay increases since 2007, with no compression pay increases like other state employees have received.

According to Smith, even though deputies are constitutional officers and are classified as state-supported local employees, the state does not offer equal support for them.

“Virginia is the ninth richest state in America, according to Forbes, however, they are paying their deputy sheriffs 25 percent less than the national average for patrol officers,” according to Smith. The fact that the starting pay for some deputies qualifies them for government assistance “should be embarrassing to the General Assembly and to the governor’s office,” according to Smith.

The sheriff’s association paper indicated a starting deputy with an unsupplemented salary of $31,009 per year with a household of four or more people and with no one else in the household working besides the officer qualified for the Virginia Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which enables low-income families to buy nutritious food with coupons and Electronic Benefits Transfer cards.

According to Smith, most counties are too poor to adequately supplement state deputy pay. “I commend our county board of supervisors and county administration for helping us as much as they have,” Smith said.

Compounding the problem, according to Smith, “nearly all of the recent mental health legislation has ultimately fallen upon the shoulders of sheriff’s offices across Virginia.”

He added: “…We are the ones left to counsel the mentally ill patient who needs help, waiting with them for hours and then transporting them across the state to a treatment facility.”

Smith said sheriff’s offices have received no additional personnel or funding for this, and it is taking a toll on the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office.

“Overtime costs are escalating, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it,” Smith said, also highlighting what he calls “forgotten deputies” who work in the jails. According to Smith, “They deal with the worst of the worst in many cases, providing 24/7 custody for pedophiles, murderers and other violent offenders waiting to be sent to state prison. Nearly all of these types of offenders are out of compliance, which means that local jails are forced to keep inmates for up to two years before they are sent to state prison. Localities are bearing nearly all of this cost. The bottom line is this: Nothing can exist without order, and we provide that order. This state is going to have to start paying its law enforcement professionals a decent, living wage and they are going to treat us with some equality. We are a long way from that as it stands now.”

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