The great escape

Sheriff Cook to implore BCC for money to keep deputies from taking higher-paying jobs

By Don Coble don@opcfla.com
Posted 5/5/21

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The average store manager at Home Depot is $71,601 a year and a night manager at Wawa convenience store averages $43,000. A company in Middleburg is looking for carpentry …

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The great escape

Sheriff Cook to implore BCC for money to keep deputies from taking higher-paying jobs

Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The average store manager at Home Depot is $71,601 a year and a night manager at Wawa convenience store averages $43,000. A company in Middleburg is looking for carpentry assistants with a starting salary at $41,000, and a local company is advertising for a mulch blower with a $50,000 annual salary, according to indeed.com.

A deputy with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office wears a bulletproof vest, a gun and a badge before heading out into public – all for a starting salary of $38,000.

Sheriff Michelle Cook wants to change that.

A profession that’s already facing criticism and political discord is struggling to find new officers – and keep the ones already on the force.

Add that with an 18% growth rate in the county during the past 10 years with a pay scale that makes CCSO deputies the lowest-paid in Northeast Florida, it creates disturbing trend she knows will require major changes at the highest level of county government.

Clay County starts its deputies at $38,000. St. Johns’ beginning pay is $48,000, and JSO pays $46,000 a year. Cook said Clay County often hires younger recruits – many who stay long enough to gain experience before bolting to a higher-paying agency.

The Green Cove Springs Police Department starts officers at $43,000, while Orange Park pays $38,000 in the first year, but the town offers a bump to $42,000 in the second year and to $49,000 after five years.

Cook said a little more money and a positive work environment may be enough for some deputies to stay put.

“I want the taxpayers to reap the benefits of the investment they’ve made to our employees,” she said. “I want recruiting, hiring and training somebody who works in law enforcement to stay. That’s an investment. That’s not a pass-through skill. That’s an investment in teaching them the culture of our agency; teaching them the responsibilities of such an important position; teaching them what’s expected of them from our community. Having them pass through and go to another agency starts us from zero again. You’ll see when agencies have high turnover in personnel and they end up going somewhere else, they’re not as invested in their community. I really want them to be invested in this community.

“You want people that are familiar with the area, have roots here – even if they’ve moved here recently. They develop a sense of belonging and ownership. It’s my community. I care about the community and the community cares about me, I’m going to do the best job I can. I don’t want to let my community down. We have such a high turnover, it’s hard to maintain that sense of belonging.”

Cook said she’s responsible for creating a positive work environment. But it’s going to take more money to fill more of the void.

“One, the organization culture and that’s something I can control,” she said. “That’s something I work on every single day. I want them to feel value. I want them to feel appreciated. I want them to know what they are doing is righteous work.”

Counting three deputies who’ve quit in the first four days of May, CCSO now has openings for 21 sworn deputies and eight corrections deputies.

Cook currently is preparing to submit her budget to the Clay County Board of Commissioners. She knows her agency will never get the money to be competitive with neighboring St. Johns County and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, but she hopes to find a workable middle ground.”

“It is a challenge to ask for more money, but it is very compelling that in my realm is that in the last 3.25 years, we’ve lost 180 critical personnel,” Cook said. “When I say critical, we’ve lost 180 police, dispatch and detention. And people say they all retire. The answer to that is no. Sixty-three percent of those people left within six years of being employed to go to other agencies for more money.”

The turnover rate for patrol deputies since the beginning of 2018 is 35.3%, according to information Cook’s agency compiled. More alarming is less than 5% of dispatchers who started before 2018 are still on the job, and 36.5% of detention deputies have quit.

Not only does it create a never-ending job search, it’s resulted to more than $6 million of additional expense to the agency. The costs of drug testing, physicals, psychological exams, Hepatitis-B shots, supplies, armory and training is about $36,021 for a deputy and a dispatcher and $27,509 for a detention deputy, Cook said.

“The cost that I cannot recoup in that hiring process is [$6.1 million] those are the costs that I cannot recoup,” she said. “If I hire you today and I give you a gun, a rifle, I can reuse that. That’s the stuff I can get back. We lost 180 people – patrol deputies, dispatch and detention deputies – in 3.25 years at a cost of $6.1 million. I can’t replace that.”

Although Cook submitted a booklet of facts to the council, she hasn’t submitted her proposed budget yet.

“I like antidotal stories, but I wanted to give them the data,” Cook said. “I wanted to know how many people are leaving. What does that cost us? Why are they leaving?

“I showed the commission our presentation and talked about our priorities. We are currently submitting our budget items to the county.”

Cook said there are three primary reasons people stay at CCSO.

“One, the organization culture and that’s something I can control. That’s something I work on every single day. I want them to feel value. I want them to feel appreciated. I want them to know what they are doing is righteous work.

“The second thing that keeps an employee is ‘What is my pay?’ Not in my lifetime will we able to pay as much as St. Johns County or Jacksonville. That’s where we are losing our people because they don’t have our tax base. I get that. But we have to be competitive. People will forgo a few thousand dollars if they really enjoy where they work.

“The third thing that keeps people is a career salary plan. I know what I’m going to make Day 1. I know what I’m going to make 10 years from now. What we’re doing is not only looking at surrounding agencies’ offers and starting pay, what do they have as a career salary plan? It is the industry standard now for agencies to have a plan laid out so that when deputies start, they can look at a piece of paper and know how much they’re going to make moving forward. The other benefit to that is the communities, the [board of county] commission can forecast that. How much is this going to cost us? It helps prevent the turmoil tension that’s caused every time you try to get a negotiation for a few percentage here, a few percentage there [in raises]. It eliminates a lot of that because it’s spelled out for everybody.”

Until then, the beat will go on at CCSO – along with the defections – at the county’s frontline deputies against crime.

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