This newspaper has argued for many years in favor of better pay for all local public-safety personnel — police, sheriff, jail/prison, fire, ambulance — going all the way back to the almost-blue-flu outbreak some years ago. Not much has happened to resolve the issue other than window dressing. In the past, Floyd County grand juries have made the same point and called for a top-to-bottom restructuring — which, by the way and for the umpteenth time in this space, would be greatly facilitated by a consolidation of the Rome/Floyd police departments ... already headquartered in the same building.
It is worth pointing out that low pay (and mediocre benefits) in local public-safety positions and especially for those manning the “front lines” is not a result of the current budget/revenue tightness. It reflects a long-standing attitude on the part of elected officials and many of their constituents showing lack of appreciation for high-risk services rendered even when the county was flush.
The “news” at budget hearings that the Floyd Police Department had lost 22 percent of its personnel in just the past year, mostly to nearby hamlets a tenth the size of Greater Rome that often paid thousands a year more — plus a drive-home police vehicle — only shows a long-standing turnover trend is accelerating. This has been going on for years with Rome and sheriff officers equally affected. Moreover, a lot of area EMTs of years past are now serving communities 20 miles or so away even if still residing here, as do many of the officers.
AFTER ALL, pretty much everything is better in Greater Rome than can be found nearby ... except for public-safety pay.
There is much to find fault with in the County Commission’s new budget, but at least it can be understood as poor choices rather than this display of lousy attitude. “Sparing” the parks from a budget cut only after learning the department had already wiped out its entire reserves in dealing with cuts in past years, but going ahead and slashing the library yet more upon learning it had a few reserve dollars remaining (about the last of them, by the way), pretty much shows how this body has been operating in recent years.
Remember the old jest that the last person leaving Floyd County should remember to turn off the lights? Well, the commission is turning them off one room at a time. A couple more rooms and the foyer and they’re out the door except for state-mandated functions like the courts.
That the commissioners themselves will have to pull $752,305 from reserves to cover the new budget doesn’t seem nearly that horrifying when Interim County Manager Gary Burkhalter, for many years the finance director and thus in a position to know, mentions that the county similarly raided the reserves from 2005 to 2011, seems to be avoiding it regarding 2012, yet if resumed there would be sufficient reserves “to carry us several more years.” The dictionary defines “several” as “more than two or three.” And those reserves were created by earlier commissions that began their stewardship with no reserve dollars at all.
PART OF THAT pulling from reserves for this year is to help cover an estimated one-time bonus of perhaps $400 for all full-time and permanent part-time county employees. Hmm, will that apply to the part-time commissioners or are they temporary because voters might recall them?
For those in public safety after all the discussion and spotlighting of how poorly they are compensated, that $400 is practically an insult although nobody will turn it down.
As Sheriff Tim Burkhalter again correctly explained: “We all need a raise. I think in public safety, they have gone without raises for six years, and they do a really dangerous job.”
Let’s grant that the commissioners feel that for political reason they can’t raise property taxes, about all remaining in their control with the state steadily taking away some of their revenue streams and making others, like a local income tax, impossible to implement. However, that’s not just because, all being Republican, they can’t go against the party marching-orders of “no more taxes, ever” and “no government is the best government.” It’s because with their recent track record the local electorate doesn’t trust them to spend any increased money correctly with the biggest bang for the buck in mind.
UNFORTUNATELY, any millage rate boost can’t be legally locked up and “dedicated” to a single purpose like public-safety pay nor can special-purpose sales taxes go for operational expenses. Yet, if a public vote were held on adding a mill or two to the rate specifically to pay highly trained and top-performing public-safety personnel a respectable wage sufficient to keep them around to continue to deliver dividends on all the training taxpayers have provided, is anybody willing to bet against it passing?
It might even cover beefing up the notoriously understaffed police forces sufficiently that they could provide security routinely and daily to all Rome/Floyd public schools — a topic not even mentioned because, one supposes, that is a school board worry. Some might view such as a community concern but perhaps that falls under radical thinking regarding a local mood about what government should do, which appears to be the least amount possible. How fast Sandy Hook fades into history ... .
Frankly, giving police/fire/etc. a 10 percent pay hike would come far closer to, in the words of Commission Chairman Irwin Bagwell regarding the $400-or-so bonus for all 750 county employees, showing “we value the time that they’ve spent with the county.” Adairsville, just to mention one example, values that same time spent in Floyd on the part of a police officer at $4,000 more each and every year.
And a 20 percent pay raise would far better reflect the actual value of Greater Rome public-safety personnel in particular that provide the bomb squad, SWAT teams, drug task forces, chemical-hazard response teams and similar for miles in all directions — including to the communities hiring Greater Rome personnel away.
COMMISSIONERS need to learn that money is not the trump card in how they assign resources at their disposal. Rather, it is the value and importance — and inherent perils — of the services rendered.