Fairfield County budget for deputies falls short of neighbor counties

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County council members vacillated Monday night when voting on minimum starting pay for Sheriff’s deputies despite pleas from the public and the sheriff for a starting salary of at least $50,000.

Additionally, council members failed to increase entry level pay for detention center workers and 911 dispatchers.

Council members approved the $44.6 million budget by a 6-1 vote, with Councilwoman Peggy Swearingen dissenting.

This year’s budget does not raise taxes, but it required transferring nearly $2.5 million from the fund balance to keep taxes level, according to budget documents.

During budget deliberations, council members initially shelved multiple scenarios that started new deputies at between $46,000 and $50,000 per year.

In the end, the council settled on $46,000 with a 3% cost of living adjustment (COLA) and a 4% across-the board raise.

“Everyone tried their best to present a balanced budget to council that would take care of all the employees,” said council chairman Doug Pauley. “We had five budget workshops, numerous phone calls and emails, and getting [the finance department] to run different scenarios to see what we could afford to do.”

Councilwoman Swearingen was visibly frustrated by the budget vote, as council members shot down her various motions to set higher starting pay.

Swearingen first motioned to increase deputy pay to $50,000 without any pay increases, but that motion failed when it wasn’t seconded.

Councilman Dan Ruff countered with $46,000, prompting Swearingen to object.

“They (deputies) are not going to get the cost of living increase with that,” she said. “The least you can do is go for $47,500.”

“I’m trying to see if we can come to some kind of compromise,” Ruff responded. “That’s where I’m headed with this.”

Interim Administrator Clay Killian chimed in to say the $46,000 figure actually does include a 4% COLA.

Killian said setting starting salaries is difficult because other jurisdictions are also constantly revising their starting pay.

“We’re going to be in an arms race for EMTs and first responders with the rest of the state,” Killian said. “Regardless of what you do, at some point it’s not going to be enough. It’ll change as we fight that battle.”

Ruff rescinded his motion for $46,000, then motioned for a similar proposal that also set starting pay at $46,000. That option called for a 3 % COLA and a 4% raise for all employees.

Swearingen didn’t like that proposal either.

“[The difference] between that and starting at $47,500 is only $11,000,” she said.

Ruff’s motion failed 4-3, with only council members Clarence Gilbert, Neil Robinson, and Ruff supporting it.

Swearingen motioned for the $47,500 option which also included the 3% COLA and 4% raise, but that motion also failed to receive a second.

Ruff reintroduced his motion for $46,000 with a 3% COLA and 4% raise. This time, the motion passed 6-1 with Councilman Tim Roseborough opposing.

Later, Swearingen motioned to increase starting pay for detention center employees to $40,442 and dispatchers to $36,682, but that motion died when it wasn’t seconded.

The council’s votes came despite pleas from Sheriff Will Montgomery and members of the public to prioritize deputy pay.

Montgomery requested a 12% across the board raise for sheriff’s office employees. He said boosting deputy pay is vital in retaining deputies enticed by better pay in neighboring counties.

The day after the vote, neighboring Chester County announced that it is raising its starting pay for deputies to $50,600. The Town of Winnsboro recently raised its starting pay for its officers to $50,000. Chester’s Detention Center officers will also get an additional $10,000 with 9-1-1 dispatchers getting around a $12,000 salary increase.

“Agencies surrounding us have moved their salaries up. It’s important that we do the same,” Montgomery said. “That’s the only way we’re going to be able to keep our deputies and be competitive.”

Lake Wateree resident Don Goldbach echoed Montgomery’s sentiments, calling on council members to lift deputy starting pay to $50,000.

“It’s vital that we have protection in this county,” Goldbach said. “It’s very easy for them to go elsewhere and get paid more.”

Councilwoman Shirley Green admonished the Sheriff’s office to do more to help itself.

“Maybe take a look at trying to make sure that when we have that starting salary, that we’re trying to get the officers that will be ready for the force,” Green said.

Ridgeway resident Randy Bright took umbrage with low first responder pay and thought the budget lacked transparency as well.

“Don’t make the sheriff’s department an afterthought,” Bright said, referencing council’s tardiness in making priority budget decisions.

“With one week to go before the deadline, we’re still debating how much to pay our sheriff’s office employees,” Bright said.

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