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Hawkins sheriff asks commission to address low pay in his department

Jeff Bobo • Jul 18, 2019 at 3:35 PM

ROGERSVILLE — In the past 22 months, the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office has lost 74 employees, mostly to higher paying jobs in other departments, and in some cases, civilian jobs such as working at Walmart.

Recently Sheriff Ronnie Lawson lost a deputy who had more than 30 years of service and 1,955 hours of training to the Mount Carmel Police Department; a deputy with 30 years of experience and 1,270 hours of training to the U.S. Marshal’s Service; and another veteran deputy with 900 hours of training to the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

And over this past weekend, two more jail officers resigned.

On Monday, the Hawkins County Commission’s Budget Committee spent more than an hour debating a new salary scale for the 96 county employees who are paid out of the county general fund, not including sheriff’s, school and highway department employees.

Implementing that salary scale would increase county spending by $158,000 each year over the next three years. The purpose of the proposed salary scale is to help underpaid county employees, many of whom live under the poverty level.

At the end of the meeting, Lawson addressed the Budget Committee about his employees, who, he argued, are as underpaid, if not more so, as anyone in the county.

New road deputies make $29,761 annually, while new jailers make $24,853.

Lawson said he can’t blame a person for taking a higher paying job, but it’s more expensive to replace officers than it would be to pay them better to start with.

“Just in the last short period of time, I’ve lost 20 people,” Lawson said. “Three of them retired, seven went to other jobs, and two of them just couldn’t afford to work. They can’t afford the babysitters.”

What’s more astounding than his rate of turnover is the amount of money it costs to replace those employees.

For the 74 employees who have left in the past 22 months, the HCSO had to pay out $155,161 in compiled vacation and comp time.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“When you count the training, and how much it costs (to replace) all these people, it cost $2.8 million for this county just to train and have these employees go work somewhere else,” Lawson told the committee. “Very few are terminated. Most (who leave) can’t afford to work for the county. A lot of them are scared to work for the county. We’ve got a dangerous job. The men and women in the jail are jeopardizing their lives every time they come.”

It costs $37,962 to train and equip one deputy, not including overtime for someone else to fill in while they’re in the police academy.

“We trained 74 people and we’re spending $2.8 million in 22 months,” Lawson said. “That’s a lot of money, folks. Sometime, I hope, the county commission will realize if you pay on the front end, you’ll have longevity on the back end. If we could have just retained those 74 people, we would have saved $2.8 million.”

He added, “If you or your family needs help, and I send an officer, I want them to be the most experienced, highly trained officer possible. We can’t always do that now. I’m training the best I can. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think it’s a problem we just keep pushing aside.”

Budget Committee Chairman John Metz agreed to schedule a Sheriff Subcommittee meeting to begin discussing ways of bringing the sheriff’s salaries up to standard.

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