County working to raise deputy pay – Sheriff asking for $5,500 raises, supervisors looking for funds

Published 4:54 am Wednesday, February 14, 2024

The Panola County Board of Supervisors and top officials at the Sheriff’s Office met again Monday behind closed doors for discussions about pay increases for county law enforcement. Board president Cole Flint said the two sides are closer to settling on dollar figures and structure for the department following the talks.

Following his November 2023 re-election, Sheriff Shane Phelps wasted little time in approaching the board for additional department funding to allow for across the board pay raises. Phelps and Chief Deputy Reginald Lantern met with supervisors in executive session in January, and again at Monday’s meeting.

Phelps is requesting $5,500 raises for deputies and staff in his office, excluding jail employees and himself. The sheriff’s salary is set by state statute at $95,000 and pay increases for jailers and support staff in the detention center are negotiated separately.

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Deputy salaries are currently $40,080, plus benefits that include state retirement and health insurance premiums for employees, with the option to pay for family members. Deputies were earning about $34,000 until three years ago when the supervisors approved a series of pay increases in an effort to strengthen officer retention.

Supervisors have struggled with the pay issue for months, agreeing with Phelps that officer pay – especially for deputies who patrol roads and answer routine calls – needs to be increased, but careful to watch the growing payroll demands for the Sheriff’s Office.

A raise of $5,500 per employee, supervisors know, actually costs the county (and taxpayers) another $1,200-1,400 in taxes and benefits for each. The board also asked Phelps to consider waiting for the 2024-25 fiscal year to seek raises because the current budget was set in August.

Any raises now would require supervisors to dip into county reserves to finish this fiscal year, and increase property taxes this year to meet payroll obligations for the next fiscal year and those to follow.

At January’s meeting, Phelps told the supervisors he had polled the deputies and the consensus was to hire more officers, and maintain the current level of pay. 

“We went to the guys and asked them whether they wanted a raise or manpower and they said they wanted the manpower, because they are working their butts off out here answering calls,” Phelps said.

At the February meeting, Phelps said the deputies had changed their minds, and are now asking for pay raises, with the understanding the supervisors will find budget money to fund two more deputy slots to the 24 person roster (includes Drug Task Force officers). 

Salary and benefits will cost the county about $60,000 per deputy if the full increase of $5,500 each is approved. Salaries would be about $46,000 plus benefits. Another option that will be considered is raises for deputies only, and a freeze on the current salaries of ranking officers.

That option would reduce the added payroll burden from $400,000 to about $165,000 – a figure the supervisors see as manageable by pulling from county reserves to finish this budget year.

Supervisors are ultimately torn between pay raises and keeping taxes at the current level.

“I have no problem trying to get these guys some money, I come from law enforcement, but at the same time they chose this profession, they knew what the pay was when they chose it,” said supervisor Earl Burdette. “I understand they are underpaid, but where will the money come from?”

Supervisor Chad Weaver said he is also wanting to see deputies paid more, but is worried about the climbing payroll costs. “Mid-stream and not budgeted, where are we going to get the money?”

“I would love to be able to give them a raise, but I would also love to know what pocket we will be digging this out of until next budget time?” Weaver said.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, the board agreed to have a work session attended by Weaver and Phelps to narrow the discussion to exact dollar amounts and where to secure the funding needed to support the raises.