Harford sheriff says non-competitive salaries hurt recruitment, retention

Harford Sheriff's Office would need $4.4 million more to fund recommended pay plan

Eleven experienced deputies left the Harford County Sheriff's Office in 2016 – seven in law enforcement and four in corrections – and they cited, in the majority of cases, that their salaries were a key factor in them seeking employment elsewhere, the county's sheriff told the County Council Tuesday evening.

"It's salary, salary, salary that keeps coming up," Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said as he presented the results of a salary study to the council.

Erik Robey, head of legislative and community affairs for the Sheriff's Office, was alongside Gahler during the presentation. He stressed that the 11 people who departed are not retirees, but "they were actually people who were leaving for other opportunities," and the group included senior deputies, corporals and sergeants.

Gahler said he currently has 12 vacancies on the corrections side and five in law enforcement. Seventeen recruits are going through six months of police academy training, and then they have to go through 12 weeks of training in the field.

If one classifies those 17 trainees as vacant positions, the Sheriff's Office is "sitting on 22 holes in our schedule in law enforcement, which is closing in on 10 percent," Gahler said.

Salaries are also a factor in challenges in recruiting new deputies.

"These young men and women are looking at who pays $1,000 more than the next organization," Gahler said.

Last year, the Sheriff's Office hired Woodbridge, Va,-based Management Advisory Group International Inc., or MAG, to conduct the salary study.

Staffers with MAG reviewed the compensation of 522 full-time law enforcement, corrections and civilian employees who fit into 76 job classifications to determine if their salaries are competitive with law enforcement and corrections agencies in surrounding jurisdictions.

HCSO salaries were compared with those of employees of locally-run detention centers in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Charles County, Frederick County, Howard County, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, as well as the Maryland Division of Corrections.

Comparisons were also made with police departments in those counties, the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore and Harford County government.

"There is a substantial difference in the responsibilities of the Harford County Sheriff's Office, compared to other jurisdictions," Council President Richard Slutzky noted.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office is the primary local law enforcement agency, plus it runs the county jail, provides security at the Harford County Courthouse, serves court documents, and it has recently taken on animal control duties.

"That's a tough comparison when we're talking about 24 jurisdictions [in Maryland]," Slutzky said.

Gahler said the Charles County Sheriff's Office, out of the agencies surveyed, is the only one that has duties comparable to Harford County, and Harford is the only agency in that group that handles animal control.

The HCSO is "somewhat behind the overall market" in terms of salaries, Donald C. Long, president of MAG, wrote in a letter attached to the study.

"Most surveyed positions are behind the surveyed agencies, some surveyed positions are on target with the market, and only a couple of the surveyed positions are ahead of the market," Long stated.

Gahler brought up that factor during his presentation to the council. Councilman Curtis Beulah pressed him on where exactly Harford County ranks when compared to surrounding agencies, whether it is at the bottom, the middle, or "the bottom 25 percent."

"We're closer to the bottom than we are to the top," Gahler said, noting the data varies depending on individual job title and rank.

"Every rank on the corrections side is behind," Gahler said.

MAG developed a recommended pay plan based on reviews of the duties and responsibilities of all 76 job classifications, each employee's number of days in service with the Sheriff's Office and his or her classification.

The pay plan is designed to be competitive and includes the traditional "step model" used in many law enforcement agencies, as well as school systems, through which employees get annual salary increases based on years of experience.

Gahler noted "there has been an effort in many jurisdictions to move away" from the step scale.

"Most of our paramilitary law enforcement-type of organizations around the country have stuck with the step structure," Gahler noted. "It works well with ranks and years of service."

The new pay plan is also designed to resolve persistent salary compression issues that have come about from step increases not being funded in prior years, plus recent salary increases, ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent, depending on rank.

That means deputies with two to three years of experience are making the same as deputies with about a decade of experience, plus people are less willing to compete for promotions, according to Gahler.

"Why assume additional responsibilities for very little extra pay?" he asked.

Gahler noted many employees have been willing to stay because of the HCSO's working environment, its benefits and available equipment.

"I don't foresee any great departure, but I will say of the 11 that left this year, we weren't anticipating them [leaving]," Gahler said.

Gahler has requested $4.4 million in his agency's fiscal 2018 budget to fully fund a recommended "reduced market rate salary plan," proposed by the consultant, a figure that also includes corresponding benefits increases, such as retirement contributions by the county.

He told council members County Executive Barry Glassman is waiting to get accurate county revenue projections for next year before committing to funding that pay plan.

He said he understands the county executive "is in a hard spot," considering his many commitments in the county budget, but as the sheriff "I worry about policing this county and providing public safety; I need the men and women in uniform, and behind the scenes and in the detention center, to do that."

"We appreciate that, no question about that, but at the end of the day it all boils down to revenue," Councilman Patrick Vincenti said.

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