Saturday, April 20, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Sheriff calls on commissioners to raise taxes if needed to combat turnover in his ranks

Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson didn’t exactly gussy things up when he appeared before the county’s board of commissioners on Monday to address his agency’s ongoing struggle with turnover.

In fact, Johnson consciously took his cue from Governor Jeff Landry of Louisiana, who recently issued a state of emergency due to a shortage of police officers within the Pelican State.

A STATE OF EMERGENCY 

“I’m before you today declaring a state of emergency for the Alamance County sheriff’s office. We have tried everything in the world to recruit new officers. Currently, we have a shortage of 56 detention officers and deputies [outside the jail], and it is a critical situation for us.”

– Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson

“I’m before you today declaring a state of emergency for the Alamance County sheriff’s office,” he announced in unabashed imitation of Landry. “We have tried everything in the world to recruit new officers. Currently, we have a shortage of 56 detention officers and deputies [outside the jail], and it is a critical situation for us.”

- Advertisement -

Johnson’s appeal ultimately prompted the commissioners to demand some post-haste proposals from the county’s administrators, who were instructed to return with these actionable recommendations in March. Yet, it wasn’t exactly the first such plea that the county’s governing board has heard from the long-serving Republican sheriff.

Over the past couple of years, Johnson has periodically approached the commissioners about staff-level vacancies – and particularly about those among the detention officers who oversee Alamance County’s jail.

In reply to these pleas, the commissioners have signed off on several pay raises, including a $5,000 boost that every jailer and deputy under Johnson’s command received in 2022 after Burlington’s city council lavished an unprecedented package of pay raises on its own municipal police force. The commissioners have also authorized a so-called “supplement” of $5,000 a year for deputies and jailers who do shift work and, most recently, they approved a raft of staffwide wage increases in response to a “market analysis” of the compensation at the sheriff’s office, EMS, and the county’s department of social services.

Despite these efforts on the part of the county’s governing board, Johnson insists that he continues to lose large numbers of jailers and deputies to other agencies that are able to offer more ample remuneration.

In his appearance on Monday, the sheriff zeroed in on his detention staff, which he contends has been particularly hard hit by these wage-related departures. He told the commissioners that he is consequently unable to muster the 23 people per shift that he needs to adequately staff the county’s detention center. In the meantime, Johnson said that his remaining jailers are overworked, stretched thin, and exposed to increasing dangers in light of their inadequate numbers.

The sheriff also complained of a growing number of opportunistic attacks by inmates who take advantage of the jail’s reduced manpower to act out against those who remain.  Johnson recalled that the detention center witnessed 34 such assaults in 2023 alone, resulting in serious injuries to nine of his jailers.

Johnson went on to introduce the commissioners to Phillip Starnes, a lieutenant in the detention center who was wounded in two of last year’s nearly three dozen assaults. Starnes detailed one particularly savage outburst that he told the commissioners occurred in July of 2023.

Phillip Starnes, a lieutenant in the detention center

“The inmate hit me in the head and knocked me to the ground. Because of short staffing, it was several minutes before another officer was able to come to assist me . . . and I received lacerations to the head, my ear was partially severed, and it had to be reattached at the lobe using medical grade glue.”

– Phillip Starnes, a lieutenant in the detention center

“The inmate hit me in the head and knocked me to the ground,” the detention officer recalled. “Because of short staffing, it was several minutes before another officer was able to come to assist me…and I received lacerations to the head, my ear was partially severed, and it had to be reattached at the lobe using medical grade glue.”

Johnson proceeded to inform the commissioners that his detention officers aren’t the only ones who are suffering due to the jail’s chronic shorthandedness. He said that the facility’s understaffed state has also exposed inmates to various dangers, and because he lacks the manpower to operate the jail’s annex, which is located at a former state prison camp in Graham, detainees are sometimes reduced to sleeping on the floor of the county’s primary detention center.

“I can no longer run that detention center and watch my people get hurt,” the sheriff went on to implore the commissioners. “Please, I’m asking you, work with [county manager] Heidi [York] and her staff to correct this stuff because I have people who are talking about leaving now.”

Johnson added that his own agency’s struggles are mirrored by similar turnover-based tribulations at social services and EMS. In the meantime, he said that the county’s burgeoning population puts more and more pressure on these services, while the revenue needed to address the imbalance is not materializing because of a property tax rate that he conceded is the 13th lowest of the state’s 100 counties.

JOHNSON: RAISES TAX IF NECESSARY

“I’ve heard a lot of people saying we need to reduce taxes. But unless John Doe Billionaire gives us some money, I don’t see any way, with how the county is growing, not to raise taxes.

“I’ve been sheriff for 22 years,and I’ve watched us kick the can down the road on this tax thing. We want good schools and we want good emergency services . . . I need to make you aware of what is happening…and we’ve got to work together.”

– Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson

“I’ve heard a lot of people saying we need to reduce taxes,” Johnson went on to declare. “But unless John Doe Billionaire gives us some money, I don’t see any way, with how the county is growing, not to raise taxes.

“I’ve been sheriff for 22 years,” he added, “and I’ve watched us kick the can down the road on this tax thing. We want good schools and we want good emergency services…I need to make you aware of what is happening…and we’ve got to work together.”

The sheriff went on to propose several short-term adjustments that the commissioners may be able to relieve his agency’s turnover crisis. He suggested, for instance, that the commissioners modify the county’s pay grades to factor in his agency’s aforementioned shift supplement. Johnson also requested more flexibility in how his employees can capitalize on the comp time they’ve banked, and he proposed some additional adjustments to pay scales so that his subordinates don’t earn more in their current positions than they could if promoted – a situation known colloquially as “redlining” that Johnson blamed for some of his agency’s compensation-related defections.

In the end, Johnson’s appeal resonated loud and clear with the county’s governing board.

“I do think we have to concentrate on what our sheriff told us tonight,” commissioner Bill Lashley said as he summed up the group’s overall mood, “and I think it speaks to what’s going on in this county.”

“As a matter of law, [Johnson’s] employees are not county employees. The county manages their benefits and their pay because it’s more cost effective . . . but they are legally distinct.”

– Alamance County attorney Rik Stevens

Lashley went on to suggest that the county’s administrators should delve deeper into some of the sheriff’s specific proposals. He also tossed out some recommendations of his own, including a “hazard pay rate” for the sheriff’s office and pay grades that are separate and distinct from those that apply to the rest of the county’s workforce. This latter idea later received some vindication from county attorney Rik Stevens.

“As a matter of law, [Johnson’s] employees are not county employees,” Stevens conceded. “The county manages their benefits and their pay because it’s more cost effective…but they are legally distinct.”

Lashley also expressed a sense of resignation about the property tax increase that Johnson asked him and his colleagues to consider. The Republican commissioner recalled that he had predicted just such a hike when the county’s governing board held its annual retreat in January.

“When I said at our retreat that taxes could rise as much as a dime, I wasn’t just whistling Dixie,” he added before the commissioners instructed the county manager to come back to them in the first week of March with some actionable proposals based on the sheriff’s recommendations. “There’s a lot of hard decisions that need to be made in the next five months, and they’re not always going to be copacetic…and I think that what we have to explain to our taxpayers and our citizens is ‘why’ [the tax increase is needed].”

Must Read

Elon town council focuses on part-time position amid $10.9M budget

Elon town manager Richard Roedner had put out a proposed budget totaling about $10.9 million a few weeks ago. He proposed one new employee,...