ROGERSVILLE — It costs as much, and sometimes more, to replace low-paid Hawkins County correctional officers than to adjust the pay scale to make their salaries more competitive with surrounding counties, according to Sheriff Ronnie Lawson.
In the past 18 months, the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office has had to pay out more than $16,000 to cover accrued vacation time, comp time and other benefits to two jail sergeants and a corporal who resigned to take higher paying jobs elsewhere.
That’s not including the cost of uniforms, equipment training and overtime associated with finding their replacements, which increased the total cost to $32,000.
On Friday, Lawson asked the Hawkins County Commission to consider adjusting his pay scale for 13 correctional officer positions, which at a cost of $27,046, would hopefully help retain experienced jailers and curb the constant turnover.
The request was to adjust the first sergeant position in the jail to detective pay; the jail sergeant to patrol sergeant pay; the jail corporal to patrol corporal pay and the jail cook positions to jailer pay.
Hawkins County government has a reputation for being among the lowest paying government employers in the region. Lawson said his department trains young officers and provides them with experience, and oftentimes as soon as they become valuable they leave to get higher paying jobs in other counties.
However, the 11 commissioners who attended Friday’s Personnel Committee remained silent when asked to make a motion granting Lawson’s salary scale adjustments, in essence killing the request.
Lawson noted that UT’s C-TAS (County Technical Advisory Service) recommended that he hire five more jailers due to his jail population, but that would cost about $149,000 annually, not including uniforms and training. But, he’s not asking to hire more jailers.
“What I am trying to do is get my employees to stay,” Lawson told commissioners. “As you all know, the problem I've had continuously is losing employees to better paying jobs. I can’t help that, and I know they can’t either.”
He added, “We run a mini prison. We’ve got a lot of state inmates. We’ve got a lot of dangerous inmates. ... We need their salary to reflect that.”
Chief Deputy Tony Allen said the additional spending can be absorbed within the sheriff's budget, although some sacrifices would have to be made, such as not filling vacant positions.
“It will all work itself out in the long run, if we can get our employees to stay,” Lawson added. “I know they need more money, but they’re in a dangerous situation every day. They’re dealing with first-degree murderers and everybody else inside the jail. We’re running a prison. We’ve got one inmate, when he comes out he’s got to have three guards around him. He’s got life without parole, and he’s still got a pending murder charge here. He’s got nothing to lose, so you can’t have young people in there. You’ve got to put experienced people in there.”
Lawson added, “When you have turnover and you send young officers, you’re going to have mistakes. I’m trying to help my employees, not only financially, but staying and getting longevity and experience in their position so they will know how to react when it comes time and they have to defend themselves.”