For years, Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson has fought for deputy raises — he managed to secure more money for the last two years — but he continues to lose deputies to other law enforcement agencies that pay more.
Since January 2015, 22 officers have left the Sheriff’s Office or the county jail for jobs at other departments, including the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Kingsport Police Department. Eleven of those said they left for better pay.
“It just seems [to be] a problem to me that we train them … and then somebody else can snatch them right out from under you,” Anderson told the Bristol Herald Courier. “I believe in loyalty, but loyalty only goes so far and when somebody offers a lot more money I understand. ... I’ve tried for a long time, for years, to try to bring their pay up. Even though there’s other departments around here that pay more than what we pay, they still are not paying their officers what they’re really worth.”
Sullivan deputies are hired to work at the county jail before moving up to work at the Sheriff’s Office, making $13.41 an hour, or $27,892 a year. SCSO patrol deputies make $14.65 an hour, or $30,472 a year.
Ultimately, it’s the County Commission that decides whether deputies and other county employees get raises when it approves the county budget each year. A 2 percent raise for the current fiscal year brought the hourly wage at the Sheriff’s Office from $12.68 to $13.41 per hour.
Although the commission approved a couple of recent raises, commissioners are always hesitant to do so because it means raising taxes.
And despite the raises, Anderson still believes that the Sheriff’s Office and the county jail are underfunded. Last September, he filed a $6.5 million lawsuit against the county for a “budget shortfall.” That suit is still pending. In 2012, the sheriff filed a $9.9 million lawsuit, also for underfunding, against the county. That suit was settled in 2013 and included a 2 percent pay increase for employees.
The median annual wage for police and sheriff’s patrol officers across the nation was $58,320 in May 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Kingsport Police Department hires officer trainees at $15.76 an hour, or $32,791 a year. Occasionally, the department hires deputies from Sullivan County, but fewer are hired now than in the past because the KPD has ventured away from the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System and officers from other agencies in Tennessee can’t merge their retirement, according to a spokesman for the department.
The Bristol Virginia Police Department hires uncertified officers at $16.33 an hour, or $33,973 per year. Certified officers, who complete training and graduate from the Police Academy, start at $18.49 an hour, or $38,460 a year.
The Bristol Tennessee Police Department hires officers at $15.69 an hour, or $32,625 a year. At the most, those officers will make $24.51 an hour, or $50,975 a year. Senior police officers are hired on at $16.47, or $34,250 a year. Those officers can make up to $25.71 an hour, or $53,475 a year.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia hires entry level sworn deputies at $33,510 a year. After a year, the deputies receive a $2,400 salary increase plus a 4.56 percent raise. At Sheriff Fred Newman’s discretion, an experienced deputy can get the raise when he or she is hired and then receive the 4.56 percent raise in a year.
“We can’t attract them with the money we pay,” Anderson said of deputies. “We can’t keep them with the money we pay. That’s probably our biggest problem. You have to be able to do that. ...It’s getting harder and harder to find anybody.”
Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office Deputy John Yost said he has stayed with the Sheriff’s Office despite the pay because of the family atmosphere.
“They treat you like family from day one here,” Yost said. “I’ve had no bad experiences. It’s nice to have an administration that actually cares about their employees.”
Yost has been in law enforcement since 2003. He worked at the Wise County Sheriff’s Office, the Bristol Virginia Police Department and has been at the SCSO for more than a year.
Yost called the issue with pay a “touchy subject” for all the deputies.
“When you look at other departments around here, smaller departments, that don’t do as much as we do and they’re making more money, you kind of feel unappreciated,” he said. “With every raise, we’re paying more for insurance so basically, there goes the raises.”
Yost said the department’s biggest problems — manpower and money — are beyond the sheriff’s control.
“Other than that, this is a great place to work for. ...We’re driving all over the county to calls so either we’re not getting there fast enough or you get complaints that you’re driving too fast.”
Sullivan County deputies are busy. This year, from Jan. 1 to Sept. 27, patrol deputies have written 5,031 reports and dispatch has handled 82,851 calls.
There are 280 officers, 60 on patrol. About 140 work in the jail and the rest are in the Criminal Investigations department. Currently, there are two corrections positions open, one in maintenance and a licensed practical nurse will be hired.
Anderson said deputies typically leave the SCSO after four years. Two of the officers that left in the past year worked for the Sheriff’s Office for three years. One worked there for 16 years.
“There are a number of times that officers are leaving here and they really don’t want to,” said Frank Horne, SCSO finance director. “The feedback I’m getting is it’s not that they really are wanting to leave, but they probably have expenses that they need a better salary, or maybe better benefits.”