City eyes tax increase to raise police pay
Statesboro City Council and Mayor Jan Moore are proposing an increase in the property tax millage rate, Statesboro’s first in a decade, to fund pay raises for police officers.
Council members informally agreed Tuesday evening to make 1 mill the size of the advertised tax hike, but with the understanding that the increase could be reduced or dropped after three required public hearings.
Moore suggested a half-mill tax increase, tied to a 5 percent boost in the police starting salary, and had talked to council members individually before the meeting. She noted that she and City Manager Randy Wetmore had been talking since November about how to address the Statesboro Police Department’s continuing turnover.
Moore also chaired a Georgia Municipal Association task force on municipal workforce development, made up of mayors and other city officials from around the state, which looked at common staffing issues.
“Everybody, I mean without exception, has a shortage in public safety, specifically in the police department, in their patrol units, trying to staff them, and it’s becoming worse and worse,” she said.
Moore said she also saw that Statesboro, even after police received raises along with all other city employees through the new pay plan adopted last year, was not being competitive. As a university city, Statesboro has students as well as permanent residents to protect, she noted.
“I want to make sure we are doing what we need to do to keep everybody safe,” Moore said.
The city could fund a police raise by dipping into its general fund reserves, without a tax increase, she acknowledged.
“But that’s not a long-term solution, and the City Council and these employees here have worked so hard over the past few years to get these reserves up to where they need to be so that we are a fiscally sound city,” Moore said.
Meanwhile, the Statesboro Police Department continues to be about 10 officers short of full staffing.
“We can’t fill 10 of our patrol positions,” Moore said, “and we’re having a hard time retaining people. They get here for two years and we train them up right, and they go to the place that pays more money.”
Because of the widespread shortage of officers, cities and counties are increasing salaries and coming up with other incentives, leading to “a competitive battle,” said Chief of Police Mike Broadhead.
“My major concern that really has become clear just over the last month, as much as anything because of news coming from other communities within our region, is that that wage war is starting now,” Broadhead said. “If we get left behind, then the story’s just going to get worse and worse as far as our retention rate and our ability to entice good employees.”
State Patrol leads
Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly weighed into the competitive situation when they approved a 6 percent raise for state law enforcement officers in 2016 and followed it with a 20 percent raise this year. The Georgia State Patrol’s base salaries are now $36,110 for recruits and $46,422 for troopers after they complete trooper school, which includes a 20-week academy and 12 weeks of field training.
“We’ve lost, I think, at least two employees within the last 12 months to the highway patrol. …,” Broadhead said. “I don’t think we’re going to get to a point where we can compete with the kind of wages they can pay, but again, we just can’t get left behind.”
Raises for all city employees the past two years have lifted Stateboro’s starting salary for certified police officers from $31,236 in fiscal year 2016 to $32,955 now.
That is in the middle of area police officer and sheriff’s deputy starting salaries city Human Resources Director Jeffery Grant presented for comparison. These range from $39,230 in Savannah, $37,515 in Hilton Head and $36,887 in Dublin to $30,477 at the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, $28,917 with the Georgia Southern University Police Department and $28,017 at the Effingham County Sheriff’s Department.
In his list, Statesboro’s starting pay was closest to that for police in Pooler, $32,299, and Hinesville, at $33,721.
A 5 percent boost would make Statesboro’s starting salary for certified officers $34,600, or higher than Richmond Hill’s $33,893 but still lower than Augusta-Richmond County’s $34,885.
Moore suggested that a millage increase be linked to the raise for police and restricted to that use.
But Councilman Sam Lee Jones said he would favor a 1 mill increase, with some money for other purposes.
“In addition to the public safety needs, there are also needs for some infrastructure and community recreation, such as a pool, in the city,” Jones said.
What’s a mill?
A mill is one-thousandth of the value of property as assessed for taxes. An increase of 1 mill would mean $40 more annual tax on a $100,000 home assessed for taxes, as required in Georgia, at 40 percent of its market value.
A half-mill increase would add $20 to the annual tax on a $100,000 home, or as Moore put it, $1.67 a month.
Other council members indicated support for a millage increase tied to the police raise.
“Safety is by far the number-one issue for our citizens,” said Councilman Phil Boyum. “A buck sixty-seven a month is a pretty small price to pay to enhance your security.”
The advertised millage will be the upper limit, but the council could choose a smaller increase after advertising a 1-mill increase and hearing from the public, Moore said.
Statesboro’s current property tax rate is 6.358 mills, and Moore and Wetmore said it has not been increased in more than 10 years.
3 hearings slated
The council’s only vote on the topic was a unanimous one to set the times for the tax increase hearings.
Two hearings will be held at City Hall on Aug. 24, at noon and 6 p.m. The third hearing will be at 9 a.m. Sept. 5, with the millage vote to take place in the regular meeting that follows.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.