After concerns about the turnover rate at the Aiken Department of Public Safety were raised during last week's City Council work session, the main city officials involved in the discussion spoke in-depth with the Aiken Standard about the factors affecting the rate and how to address it.
Starting salaries for departments around Aiken County:
Starting salaries for departments around Aiken County:
Aiken Public Safety: $35,800
Aiken County Sheriff's Office:
Deputy Sheriff: $31,717 – $36,218
Detention Officer: $26,958 – $31,275
Dispatcher: $26,958 – $29,628
South Carolina Highway Patrol: Approx. $31,150
North Augusta: $43,000
Wackenhut: $18.56 per hour with an increase to $20.79 or $22.76 based upon completion of training and depending on assignment
New Ellenton: Not Available
Two deaths, two months
Two Aiken Public Safety officers were killed in the line of duty in December 2011 and January 2012. The year following the deaths saw a turnover rate of 21 percent, including six officers who retired, 11 who left voluntarily and one being terminated.
City Manager Richard Pearce said two in-the-line-of-duty deaths less than two months apart had a “tremendous” impact on the department and its operations. Chief Charles Barranco recalled hearing from national experts on dealing with an officer death while honoring Scotty Richardson and Sandy Rogers in Washington, D.C. They said a department can expect to feel the lingering effects of the tragedy for three to five years.
“The timing of this is something they would expect to see,” Pearce said. “Maybe they're questioning if they should be in law enforcement. Do they want to go to work every day and drive by where a coworker has been shot? Do they even want to stay in law enforcement? They are issues we work through with our officers together.”
The issue of salaries came up frequently during the work session. Some City Council members said compensation may not be an answer to turnover problems.
City Councilman Dick Dewar said for two years, he has requested a compensation study from the City detailing the comparisons of salaries from different departments around Aiken County. Councilman Reggie Ebner has sought the same information for four years, he said.
During the work session, several members of Aiken Public Safety, including Barranco and Capt. Ron Shelley, said much of the turnover problem simply has to do with lack of salary – Aiken Public Safety officers start out at about $35,800 while North Augusta Public Safety officers start out at about $43,000.
“I do want to say compensation for Public Safety is extremely complicated,” Dewar said. “But this is not a new topic for me. It's not a new issue that compensation is important, but I don't think it's as big of an issue as the chief (Barranco) makes it out to be. Some of their (Public Safety's) people left for lower-paying jobs, which wasn't said.”
All City employees received a 1.5 percent salary adjustment last year. Any future pay adjustment for Public Safety would be subject to a Council vote when it is presented with the budget this summer.
“That is something that we're looking into,” Pearce said of Public Safety salaries. “We specifically have a consultant that's looking at salaries throughout the department to see what ranges are appropriate. We've had a very wide range, probably wider than most departments have had.”
For compensation, Dewar said North Augusta is most comparable to Aiken.
“It's also a Public Safety program and it has a fire department,” he said. “But that's the question City Council has to address. You can't understand on one hand how important Public Safety is and on the other hand higher turnover and not (be) willing to pay what's acquired to attain.”
Pearce said the City looks at not just salary but also benefits, which include contributing to the officers' retirement. The benefits are a factor that make examining salary numbers alone unreliable.
“A lot of employers, for example, are getting away from providing health insurance, and we provide that,” he said. “… We have more of a total package, and that was developed years ago to encourage folks to work for us for an extended period of time.”
Dewar said the City budget is currently pretty tight, and compensating Public Safety more may be difficult.
“We have requirements to do as a City, and a wide variety of them ... such as problems with water pipes, water leisure,” he said. “These are concerns that Reggie and I address. We're on a tight budget, so we may need to be a little more innovative.”
In the work session and in a letter to the editor, the Councilmen expressed concern about “low morale” within Aiken Public Safety. Dewar would not give names, but said he's spoken to sources affiliated with Public Safety who say salary is always an issue, but it's more the lack of the morale.
“I'm focused on internal management and sometimes, you may not like the boss or the other way around,” Dewar said. “You might not like your job. But whether that's happening or not, I've talked to people who have said this. We just need more information.”
Barranco said morale is always an issue.
“Especially when you want to talk about pay or the loss of a fellow officer,” he said. “That's definitely going to affect morale. That's why, on an individual basis, we are dealing with employees one-on-one. … We look forward to suggestions. We recommend them and encourage people to come forward with different ideas that may help either affect their workload or morale.”
Much of the discussion with individual officers deals with their paths moving forward, Barranco said, especially following their colleagues' deaths.
“That threat is always there,” he said. “But when it happens, it changes a lot of people's mindsets about, 'Is this something I want to do?' We work very closely with a lot of our employees to work through those issues.”
In some cases, an officer has decided law enforcement wasn't for them.
“We definitely want to find out then if the job is for them or not,” he said. “Not four or five years down the road.”
Public Safety turnover in numbers
Aiken Public Safety's turnover rate in 2012 and 2013 combined was 31.5 percent among “sworn” employees, a number based on figures provided by the City of Aiken to City Council. Of 89 “sworn” employees, in two years, 15 left voluntarily, 10 retired, two were terminated and one died.
Fifteen of the voluntary leaves took jobs with other agencies, including North Augusta Public Safety, Wackenhut and in the criminal prosecution field.
Pearce said the numbers are already showing signs of improvement. He noted specifically that the turnover rate decreased from 21 percent in 2012 to 10 percent in 2013. Four officers retired and four left voluntarily in 2013, compared to the six who retired and 11 who left voluntarily.
“We're back at the numbers that you would expect to see as a normal course of operation,” he said. “In Public Safety specifically, we're seeing an improving trend. Even with the turnover we've had ... 51 percent of the department has 10 years or more experience.”
Barranco added that the department sees a high number of applications, and that eight new applicants are scheduled to go before a board next week.
“I've said several times, a lot of times they don't bring in experience,” he said. “They bring in enthusiasm that really has energized Public Safety.”
As a member of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, Dewar said the City is supposed to review 25 percent of its wages against other cities, “or what the averages of wages paid there are,” in order to retain employees.
Compensation comparison studies are the responsibility of the city manager, according to Dewar. But he said Council members have not seen any studies thus far to compare salaries with.
Per request of Dewar, Monday night's City Council public hearing will touch on four items: requirements of the city manager to develop a program for confidential exit interviews, requirement to develop a grievance system, requirement to hire a consultant for an employee research survey and that employee compensation be addressed upon completion of the Public Safety Compensation Study.
“We could go to Bridgestone and get a good copy of an exit interview or other documents like this,” Dewar said. “It's a benefit for the best interest of the organization. I've pressed for copies on exit interviews and well, there's nothing in writing ... It's just information used by management.”
Pearce said the City has grievance and exit interview policies, and provided the Aiken Standard with copies of each from the employee handbook.
“We have a grievance policy that is in black and white,” he said. “ ... We're reviewing that grievance procedure to see if there are any updates or modifications that would be appropriate.”
The City Council public hearing will be held today at 7 p.m. on the second floor in Council Chambers of the Municipal Building, located at 214 Park Ave.
Staff photo by Maayan Schechter Chief Charles Barranco, left, and Capt. Ron Shelley spoke on behalf of the Aiken Department of Public Safety during a City Council work session earlier this month, stating high turnover is not unusual for the department.×
Staff photo by Maayan Schechter City of Aiken Council member Philip Merry looks on as Chief Charles Barranco with Aiken Public Safety and Eric Skidmore, who provides stress management and peer support with the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division, switch places to answer questions about the department's high turnover rate during a City Council work session earlier this month.×