GULFPORT -- Salaries, jail maintenance and civil service issues are among Troy Peterson's top concerns in his second month as Harrison County's sheriff.
Deputies will continue to leave the county for higher pay without a significant pay raise and the county will keep losing its $4,000 investment per officer in state-mandated training, Peterson said Monday.
At his swearing-in ceremony Jan. 4, Peterson pledged to make his deputies the highest-paid deputies in the state by the end of his four-year term. Peterson now says he wants it to happen within two years.
"It's got to happen," he said.
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Harrison County deputies are among the lowest-paid local law enforcement officers in the county.
A 6.5-percent raise would put deputies between what Biloxi and Gulfport pay their
officers, which would make Harrison County deputies the highest paid deputies in the state, Peterson said.
Biloxi's starting pay for patrol officers after academy training is just above $36,000 and Gulfport's is about $34,000. Starting pay of $32,000 a year for Harrison County deputies gives them no incentive to stay, Peterson said. Biloxi and Gulfport also have salary increases built into their budgets, he said.
"I want it done now," he said.
County supervisors for years have met pleas for increased deputy pay with a standard phrase -- "there's only so much money in the pot."
Peterson said he believes the new Board of Supervisors will see the wisdom of paying deputies an amount that will make them want to stay.
"I think with the board we have now, it's (about) what's going on in society," Peterson said. "The culture we're living in is not like it was in the '80s or '90s. It's different. You don't go to a fist fight to fight with your fists. You go with a gun."
The previous board, he said, wanted to treat all county employees equally in terms of pay raises.
"You don't have $4,000 invested in a backhoe driver or dozier driver in the first year," Peterson said. "In the several months before I took office, if we hired 17 (deputies), we were losing 16.5."
The sheriff's budget is $18.6 million, but not all of it pays for enforcement.
'Got to be done'
Peterson estimates a 6.5-percent pay raise would cost about $300,000.
He said the sheriff's office not only handles patrol and criminal investigations, but provides water patrol, air support, beach patrol, search and rescue and has the county's highest number of service dogs.
Does he know where county supervisors could come up with the money?
"I don't care where they get it," Peterson said. "It's got to be done."
Peterson said he's appreciative supervisors gave a 3- percent raise in December, but said it's not enough and deputies lose most of it in taxes.
He gave an example of a lieutenant's paycheck increasing by $31.
"I don't know of a restaurant where you can go to with you, and your wife and two kids and eat for $31," he said.
Peterson said one of his biggest concerns is that the Civil Service Commission's tenure expired in 2013, "so our workers are working unprotected."
Previously, some of the commission's decisions on officer actions or possible misconduct depended, in part, "on who you knew," he said. "It wasn't done the right way."
Disciplinary hearings have been set aside because the commission's tenure has expired, he said.
Peterson said efforts are under way to gain the Legislature's approval for a new commission.
In other concerns, Peterson said some areas of the jail have fallen into disrepair because no one took responsibility for maintaining them. Some surveillance cameras are not working, he said, and fence posts that secure the outer perimeter fences are rusty or broken.
An exterior wall in a day room is dilapidated and the room is next to a perimeter fence, he said. "It's a capital expense that requires the board to fix it. It's a huge expenditure to the board."
He said a mild storm three weeks ago blew down the back side of an inner perimeter fence, requiring an emergency fix.
"I've found no surprises," said Peterson, who worked with a transition team to identify problems before he was sworn in.