Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett on Tuesday asked the County Commission to include five new vehicles and pay raises for deputies and correction officers in the fiscal 2020 budget.
After Tuesday's budget hearing, some commissioners said they felt the first-term sheriff’s requests were reasonable and thought three new vehicles were a possibility.
“I think the rate of pay for deputies and jailers certainly needs addressing,” said District 1 Commissioner Jeff Clark. “We’re losing employees now because of the pay, and when Mazda Toyota (Manufacturing USA) starts hiring 4,000 people, everybody in the county is going to lose workers.”
Ray Long, commission chairman, said the starting pay for jailers is $11.65. Increasing the jailers’ pay one grade and an anticipated 3.5% for all county employees in the proposed fiscal 2020 budget will put starting pay at about $13 an hour, he said.
“The jail is our biggest liability in the whole county,” Long said. “We don’t want to be a training ground for these other municipalities. … Limestone starts correction officers at $15 an hour.”
Puckett said 75% of the his correction officers have been on payroll for less than two years. He said he has minimum staffing with 26 jailers on day shift and 24 on night shift every day.
“It’s hard to keep correction officers here,” he said. “Our overtime reflects that we have staffing issues. We’re trying to find new ways to attract people through social media. … If you’re not called to do this, you’re not going to be happy. We have (employees) walk out very, very often.”
He said Hoover pays its jailers about $19 an hour and has trouble retaining them.
Long supported Puckett’s desire to increase the pay of deputies promoted to corporal.
“Moving up to corporal is a great idea,” he said. “But if you’re going to give somebody a title, you need to make sure they’re getting paid for that title and responsibilities that come with it.”
District 2 Commissioner Randy Vest said he believes the sheriff getting three vehicles is obtainable in the coming fiscal year.
“We've probably got money to get three and revisit it again later in the year and look at it at budget time next year," he said.
In June, the commissioners approved the Sheriff's Office's request to purchase seven new Chevrolet Tahoes as patrol vehicles for about $56,000 each. The primary source of funding came from the department’s contingency fund, the sheriff said. Puckett said the seven vehicles are close to being on the road.
“We have 25 patrol vehicles and three are older than 10 years old and 18 are six to 10 years old,” he said. “Older vehicles cost more money to maintain and are more dangerous.”
Puckett said he has hired an accountant to help keep costs in line. He added he expects jail maintenance costs to increase with the jail being 13 years old with an increasing number of inmates.
“More inmates means more wear and tear on the jail,” he said.
The Sheriff's Office's proposed budget is $3.67 million, which reflects level funding across the previous two years. The jail’s proposed budget is $4.78 million, down about $200,000 from fiscal 2019.
Vest said he doesn’t want to put pressure on the reserve fund, either.
“Our reserve is about $3 million, and I’d like to see that amount much higher,” he said.
Vest said that, according to the Government Finance Office Association, the total budget reserve should be about 16.7% of the budget — that’s $7.3 million for Morgan County.
Vest is concerned about a natural disaster and aging county-owned buildings needing increased maintenance. He pointed to flooding in February and March that cost the county in overtime pay and extra materials. He said the county only recouped a portion of the money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The unexpected is always a concern,” he said. “We need to increase that reserve.”
Long said he believes the county can add about $400,000 to the reserve in the upcoming year.