“Our county’s in a crisis,” sheriff says

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • This time a year ago the Hoke County Sheriff’s Office and the county jail were fully staffed, but when Sheriff Dr. Hubert Peterkin approached commissioners Monday, it was to tell them things have changed and the law enforcement agency has lost 14 staff members recently with more expected to go out the door soon.

“Our county’s in a crisis. We are experiencing a high turnover, more than I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Peterkin told the board.

Peterkin and some of his department leadership appeared before the commission to explain what’s going on and ask for help. Law enforcement agencies in surrounding counties and cities have been raising their pay to try and coax officers into filling vacancies. There are only so many qualified personnel to go around, leading to a difficult situation where many agencies are struggling to stay staffed, Peterkin said.

“Hoke County is not the only one dealing with this, it’s all over the state,” he said.

But Hoke has been hit especially hard recently. So far 14 people, including three supervisors and several investigators, have departed to take jobs elsewhere. As many as six more staff members are planning to leave, too, an officer reported.

Hoke’s law enforcement staff are loyal and hard-working, but the county doesn’t pay as much as some other agencies in the area are offering, the sheriff said.

“We’re not competitive when it comes to pay,” he told commissioners.

Hoke offers $35,500 as a starting salary for a deputy position, but a neighboring county offers $39,000 plus yearly bonuses, officials said. When the sheriff’s office raised its pay in recent years, the city of Raeford’s police department did, too, to try and stay competitive, Peterkin said.

The end result is the department is struggling to provide all the services the county needs.

“We are down pretty bad right now,” Peterkin said. A few weeks ago the county had to provide deputies to cover five court sessions that were going on at the same time, and it was a stretch to meet those requirements on top of having patrol deputies working to provide public safety.

“We could barely run the court,” he said.

The sheriff said he had already worked out a budget request for the upcoming fiscal year that will increase salaries, but waiting until the start of the new fiscal year in July for the increase to kick in – if commissioners approve it – leaves months of staff shortages ahead.

“You can see in our budget that we have asked for a certain amount, and I’m not even sure that’s enough,” Peterkin said. He added that if the board needed to remove other requests for things such as new patrol cars and equipment in order to meet the salary increase request – “We’ll ride on three wheels if we have to.”

Commission Chairman Harry Southerland said it’s a serious issue and that the board needs to consider the salary matter urgently.

“It’s on us,” Southerland said.

Hoke is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. When new businesses and people are looking to come into a county, they examine factors such as public safety and education, the chairman said.

“You’re doing a good job keeping us safe. I feel good going to bed at night,” Southerland said.

Asked where the starting salary for deputies needs to be, one sheriff’s office official said $40,000. It would cost about $400,000 to get the salaries to that level, according to an estimate.

It’s a problem that the county commission can fix, Southerland said.

“It’s a blessing from God that the county’s doing well,” he said.

The sheriff and county manager planned to meet this week to consider funding solutions.

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