Lawmakers change rule for deputy sheriffs; make 1 percent longevity increase automatic

The Montana Legislature passed a bill this session, now signed by the governor, that decouples the compensation for deputy sheriff’s from that of other elected officials and makes an automatic 1 percent longevity increase for deputies annually.

The longevity increase for deputies was previously only granted when the base pay for county elected officials was increased.

The compensation for deputies, under state law, is a percentage of the salary paid to the county sheriff.

The new law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, increases the percentage range for deputy compensation and allows county commissioners to increase the sheriff’s salary above that of other county elected officials.

Currently, state law requires that a county compensation board meet to make recommendations on salaries for the county treasurer, clerk and recorder, clerk of district court, county superintendent of schools, sheriff, county attorney and others. The law requires that county commissioners be paid the same amount as the county clerk and recorder, plus $2,000.

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For the last several years, the Cascade County compensation board gave raises to elected officials in order to give the longevity increase to deputies at the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, but the pay for deputies lags behind that of the Great Falls Police Department and other municipal law enforcement agencies since they are not subject to the same compensation restrictions.

During a March hearing at the Legislature, Sen. Terry Gauthier, the bill’s sponsor, said that the bill would free county governments to increase pay for deputies without having to increase the compensation for elected officials other than the sheriff, where there is also a pay gap to municipal police chiefs in many communities.

Brian Thompson, representing the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, said “your local sheriffs are getting outcompeted for good quality deputies.”

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As an example, Thompson said that the police chief and county sheriff positions had opened at the same time in Bozeman. The city received 69 applicants for the police chief position with a starting wage of $140,000 compared to one applicant for sheriff with a wage of $74,000.

Locally, the base compensation for the Cascade County sheriff for fiscal year 2020 was $64,580.17 and last year, the compensation board gave elected officials and non-union employees a one percent raise, which triggered the one percent longevity increase for deputies.

By comparison, the salary for the Great Falls Police Department chief is currently $120,000, according to City Manager Greg Doyon.

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He said the law change would give county governments more flexibility in increasing pay for deputies but it does not require that counties increase salaries for deputies, instead leaving it to a decision by the county commission.

Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said that since the bill doesn’t go into effect until October, this year’s compensation board process, which is scheduled for June, will be unchanged, and that it’s unclear under the new law if deputies will be able to negotiate their salaries through the collective bargaining process or the county budget process or how the mechanics of that process will work.

Slaughter said the statutory restriction causes pay equity problems within the department since corrections officers aren’t subject to the restriction and are now within about $1 of what deputies make. Slaughter said that detention officers are also valued and important but the requirements and responsibilities for deputies is greater but not reflected in their compensation.

“We’re losing deputies to municipalities,” Slaughter said.

County budget process underway, preliminary budget to be adopted in late June [2018]

Slaughter said his department has significant turnover and currently has about 15 of the total 42 deputies who are in their first year or so at CCSO. Training new deputies takes time and is costly, particularly when CCSO then loses them to municipal police departments.

Austin Nenow, a deputy at CCSO, testified during a March legislative hearing and said that he was a military veteran who had moved to Great Falls, where is wife is from.

He said he was working at Wal-Mart while applying to CCSO and when he got the job at CCSO, he took a $6,000 pay cut coming from Wal-Mart.

Rep. Steve Galloway of Great Falls asked Slaughter about how his department would fund any increases.

Slaughter said he expected that Cascade County Commissioners would expect him to find the funds in his department’s budget if they approved raises and that they’d likely have to tighter their budget and possibly make cuts in other areas to increase pay and improve deputy retention.

“We may have to make hard decisions,” he said.

Cascade County Commissioners have not yet responded to The Electric’s questions related to the law change.

Opponents of the law change said it would be costly for counties to increase pay for deputies without additional resources.

Eric Bryson of the Montana Association of Counties said they were opposed to the bill since it separated the longevity pay for deputies from the compensation board, which is a public meeting. Bryson suggested that it was possible deputies would be able to ask commissioners for a raise outside of the compensation board process, though any funding for public employees would be addressed in the county budget process, which is also public.

Commissioner William Barron said that some counties won’t have the resources to increase deputy salaries and might have to lay off other county staff to fund increases.