By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • After a lengthy discussion with Sheriff Dr. Hubert Peterkin in a special called meeting Tuesday, the Hoke County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to commit to increasing deputy pay to a competitive level as part of the county budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Peterkin raised alarms last week when he told commissioners his office has lost 14 deputies – now 15, as of this week – with many of them taking jobs in counties that offer higher pay. Peterkin added Tuesday that some are leaving the profession altogether.
Commissioners spoke supportively of wanting to address the issue, but initially differed in opinion on when and how to do so. After discussing potential options, board members agreed to focus on implementing the sheriff’s requested salary increase for new and current deputies through an employee regrade for the new fiscal year beginning July 1.
“We’ll take the request that the sheriff has made to us to get salaries at the competitive rate, I think it’s $40,800, that we do that and we commit to doing that in this upcoming budget. We’re committed to it and to do the regrade so we can keep it on our (pay) scale,” Commissioner Tony Hunt said in the motion.
Hoke County currently offers a starting deputy salary of about $35,500, lower than the City of Raeford police department starting pay, and lower than surrounding counties’ agencies. With the regrade, starting pay for new deputies would increase to $40,800 with a 15 percent increase across the board for deputies already employed with the department.
The commitment will give deputies something to look forward to and should help “stop the bleeding,” Peterkin said of the decision. Hunt made the motion and Commissioner James Leach seconded it.
The decision came after about an hour and a half of talks that ranged from the cause of the problem, to previous attempts by the county board to better fund law enforcement salaries, to how to balance the department’s needs with the needs of other county public services without raising the tax burden on Hoke residents.
Several board members expressed concerns about trying to work an estimated $549,051 expense, the amount needed to bring deputy salaries up to the $40,000 range, into the current year budget. Especially so when the amount would be a reoccurring expense for future years, and the special called session was taking place just 13 days before the county board’s planned budget workshops, Commission Vice Chairman Allen Thomas pointed out.
Thomas ultimately voted in support of the motion after clarifying some specific points with County Manager Letitia Edens: that the county manager would work to avoid a tax increase, would make sure to preserve the 2.5 percent cost of living pay increase for all county employees, and would not go into the General Fund balance to pay for reoccurring debt.
Peterkin asked the board to make the pay increase the top priority in his budget request. Other requests such as new cars or equipment won’t be of use if the office doesn’t have the personnel it needs, he said.
The staffing issues are universal across North Carolina, the sheriff said, leaving law enforcement offices trying to compete with each other for a limited number of qualified personnel.
“They’re telling us, if we can get your people, we’re going to take them,” Peterkin said of some area public safety offices. He noted that the office is already stretched and if more deputies leave, it would be a challenge to have enough patrol officers out in the community.
Commission Chairman Harry Southerland said that the county does have the money to address the need for competitive pay at the office. Law enforcement, healthcare and education are some of the most important parts of supporting a thriving community, the chairman said.
“If you want to have a quality community, you’ve got to have all three,” Southerland said.
Hunt pointed out during the discussions that the commissioners have worked over the last five or six years to support the sheriff’s office with pay increases. The board upped deputy salaries with a five percent hike to pay back in 2016.
“We’ve been working on this with you,” Hunt said.
“This county commission has done an awesome job,” Peterkin responded. Whatever decision the board made, he would thank them for it, the sheriff said during the meeting.
Hunt also raised concerns about needing to make sure salaries are competitive for other county staff members.
“We’ve got to be fair to all of our departments,” he said.
The county commissioners will go into budget workshop sessions the week of May 24. The board members will hear budget requests from all county department heads, and Edens and county finance staff will present a proposed balanced budget to the board members by June 1.