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As vacancies grow, sheriff seeks higher pay to fill entry level positions


As the manager of a career development program for Sheriff Lowell Griffin, George Erwin reviews the experience, education, continuing ed and other certifications that deputies, jailers and 911 dispatchers bring to the table. He counsels them on boxes they need to check, asks about their family and career goals. In the course of it all, he’s come to realize one common challenge: The young officers can’t afford to live here.

“I had two that I talked to that were at another agency and they said the only way we could afford to come here — they were taking a big pay cut — is because our insurance was outrageous where we were and it was a lot less with the county,” said Erwin, who served as sheriff here from 1994 to 2006. “The county’s providing good benefits. The salaries haven’t kept up.”

As Henderson County commissioners edge closer to adopting a 2023-24 budget, pay for sheriff’s personnel looms as one of the bigger challenges.

When the county’s emergency services director told commissioners he could not hire EMTs at the current rate, board members agreed to an increase.

“In fact, we managed to keep some people from leaving and brought back some people that had left,” said Rebecca McCall, who chairs the board.

She’s hearing from the sheriff about pay and hiring. “We’re always going to be fighting that battle, especially with inflation and all that going on,” she said. “We do a cost of living increase every year. Historically, it’s been 3 percent. Last year it was 5 percent but we have definitely not set it yet (for the new budget). We’re still in the crunching numbers phase.”


Comparing pay rates

Erwin has done some number crunching of his own, and found that nearby departments are paying starting officers more, either in base pay or sign-on bonuses.

Henderson County starts sheriff’s deputies, senior detention officers and 911 dispatchers at $40,560. Although the range can go up to $64,168, Erwin points out that the top pay would come many years after a young officer and family would be looking to buy a first home or even rent an apartment or condo.

The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office starts deputies at $47,500. At the Asheville Regional Airport, which Erwin helps guide as an airport authority member, a new officer starts at $46,000 while a new hire with experience can make $57,000. Asheville PD starts officers at $42,548 and increases the rate to $45,856 once the rookie officer is state certified. The city also offers a $5,000 sign-on bonus for officers already certified and $3,500 for trainees. Erwin also pulled the police pay from the town of Wake Forest north of Raleigh. New hires with no law enforcement experience make $55,393.

The N.C. Department of Correction offers a $7,000 sign-on bonus for guards, probation-parole and kitchen help, Erwin said, and the city of Hendersonville over the past two years has raised pay substantially and added sign-on bonuses, although Erwin does not recommend bonuses at the sheriff’s office.

“If you’re working for me and you’ve been working for me for five years and Joe Smith comes in from another agency and I give him a big salary plus I’m gonna give him $5,000 bonus just to come and work for me, what am I doing for you? I’m against that,” he said.

Griffin told commissioners during their January budget retreat that it’s become harder and harder to recruit trainees.

‘We have to take care of our employees’

“As I did last year I stood in an open meeting and said we have got to take care of our employees,” he said. “The area that we live in — look at the cost of living. Everybody is trying to get all they can because that’s what it takes to raise a family today, and right now several smaller departments, both municipal and county agencies around us, are paying more than we’re paying. We have fallen behind. We’ve recently had folks turn us down. They really want to come to work for Henderson County. They just can’t afford to do so.”

Although people may assume the cost of housing is higher in Raleigh, Charlotte or Greensboro, Griffin said the figures show otherwise.

“I recently saw a study that indicated the highest average rent in North Carolina was in the Henderson and Buncombe counties, not Durham, not Wilmington, not areas that you would suspect, but here in Henderson County,” he said. Starting at $42,000 a year, “these folks have no hope of really even purchasing a place. Not only that, they can’t even afford to rent here. They have to look elsewhere to live even if they’re going to work here in Henderson County.”

Griffin makes a point of praising the Henderson County citizens, who he says “by and large support law enforcement and understand how difficult the job is. They give our men and women the support they need. But these folks have to be able to pay their bills.”

Griffin chalks up the stats. He can count 17 employees who qualify for WIC, the food assistance program for mothers and young children. Countywide, property values just went up by 48 percent. And, some years down the road, Griffin will likely need to hire more detention officers and bailiffs to serve in an expanded jail and courthouse. All the while, he’s seeing less interest in jobs that are highly scrutinized, often stressful and routinely dangerous.

“The number of people wanting to get into law enforcement is dwindling,” he said. “Everybody in the region is fighting over a smaller pool of applicants and it’s paramount that we be able to reach out and attract some of these. Currently, I’m sitting on probably 18 to 20 vacancies. This is something as I talked to commissioners a few months ago that I’ve seen coming and it’s just it’s just continuing to grow.”

The county’s culture and its benefits make employment at the sheriff’s office more attractive than some neighboring agencies, Griffin says. A bump in pay, he adds, might nudge them to the door.

“We’re not asking for the moon,” he said. “We’re just simply sitting here saying, Look, the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office has to be competitive in the market basket with all of the region and we’re lacking that right now. I really think that if our pay came up, because of the environment that we foster here, I really believe we’d have more applications than we’d know what to do with.”