ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said that over the years the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department has served as a sort of “training ground” for officers — a place where officers can receive the training and experience needed to seek a higher-paying job with another law enforcement entity.
However, the sheriff said he soon intends to address this with the Unicoi County Commission to see what can be done to put the county’s sheriff’s department on a level playing field with surrounding police organizations to increase officer retention.
“It’s something down the road that’s going to have to be addressed if we want to keep officers,” Hensley said. “If not, it’s going to continue.”
Hensley said the county must look at implementing a step raise system and see to it that pay and benefits for county officers are at least equivalent to what is offered by the Erwin Police Department.
A number of items are required before newly hired officers can begin work, including background checks, psychological tests and physicals, Hensley said. He also said that within six months of their hire, an officer must complete the state Law Enforcement Training Academy and must subsequently receive 40 hours of in-service training annually. Hensley said it is the county that foots the bill for the costs associated with these items, along with any additional training.
“Any way you want to look at it, this is a professional job,” Hensley said. “It takes training and, in order to get that training, it takes money. What’s happened for several, several years, the county would hire these people and we’d train them and, if there was an opening that came open for the city, they would apply over there because it’s a better job and better benefits and better pay.”
Since taking over as Unicoi County sheriff, Hensley has implemented a policy to combat the loss of sheriff’s department officers. New hires are required to sign an agreement before entering the state’s training academy that they must remain with the department for at least two years. If the officer leaves the sheriff’s department on his or her own volition prior to the end of this two-year period, they must reimburse the county for training expenses.
Even with this policy, Hensley said losing officers to other law enforcement agencies is a concern as other organizations offer not only better pay, but better benefits. He said family insurance costs for Erwin Police Department officers are considerably lower than costs for county deputies, despite both the county and city using the same insurance provider. He also said retirement benefits are better for Erwin police officers.
“I cannot hold anything against a police officer that can walk across the street and get a family insurance plan and a raise, better benefits, and I will not,” Hensley said. “That’s just business, that’s good business, but the thing of it is that leaves me holding the bag and, not only me, the taxpayers of this county.”
Hensley said the sheriff’s department has lost a substantial number of officers over the years to other law enforcement agencies. He also said the county must take a “serious look” at the pay and benefits offered to county officers to provide a stronger incentive to remain onboard with the sheriff’s department. Hensley said he intends to bring the issue to the county commission’s attention in the near future.
“I want the best-trained officers, and I do have that, but it’s also my job, and this is my policy, to do whatever I can to use the taxpayers’ money wisely and, when I foresee a problem, I’m going to bring it to their attention,” he said.
Hensley commended the work of county commissioners, adding that funding in Unicoi County is tougher to come by in comparison to other areas due to more than half of the county falling under federal ownership. Still, he said ways to increase retention of county law enforcement officers must be addressed.
“This is something that needs to be done,” Hensley said. “I’m familiar with all the things (the county commission has) had to look at. They’ve really had a bad year. It’s been hard, and I don’t envy their jobs They’ve got so much money to distribute, not just to the sheriff’s department, but to the other officials and they want to be fair about it. And I appreciate that fact, but they also have to consider what’s happening. It’s a problem, and it’s going to continue to be a problem.”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch agrees that a pay scale for the entire county needs to be discussed further and said he expects this to again be a topic of discussion for commissioners in the upcoming year. Lynch said he feels the county would be best-served by having an independent consultant give an assessment of all county positions and recommend a pay scale, which is something that has been discussed previously.
“It may take $50,000 to $60,000 to bring in a consultant, but on the other hand we’d have something to build on from this point,” Lynch said.