By Matt Kaminer

Rockbridge County sheriff deputies are getting a pay increase this week, thanks to a plan proposed by Sheriff Chris Blalock and approved by the county Board of Supervisors.

The increase applies to deputies with at least three years of experience, but not to starting salaries. Currently, deputies with as many as seven years of experience are still working at starting pay.

The problem of low pay for Virginia’s law enforcement officers persists, however, and the Virginia Sheriff’s Association is asking the state General Assembly to address the problem when it convenes next month.

“The job of a deputy isn’t getting any easier, but the recognition by those responsible for providing adequate compensation leaves much to be desired,” the Virginia Sheriff’s Association said in a press release Nov. 9. “(The Association) has placed deputy and staff compensation as its top priority to address the current salary discrepancy that exists in the Commonwealth.”

Officers in Rockbridge County earn a starting salary of $32,749, according to Blalock, and this includes a $1,779 supplement from the county. Pay increases historically are funded by the General Assembly, and Blalock, who is also on the board of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, believes the wages for officers are not competitive statewide.

“I feel officers’ wages across the state are too low, especially in many rural counties,” Blalock said. “Deputies have fallen considerably behind due to many years of no increases, so I would like to see a considerable raise in 2017 and a plan going forward to provide pay increases in the future.”

The average salary for a deputy sheriff in Virginia is $31,009, or $2,584.08 per month. A salary of $2,628.00 or less per month could qualify a deputy for food stamps. The salary for deputies is set by the state Compensation Board, which is funded by the General Assembly. While counties are permitted to supplement pay for their officers, only a fraction can afford to do so, which creates a pay disparity throughout Virginia.

According to Lt. Tim Hickman, who serves in the Rockbridge County office’s administration, no Rockbridge deputies currently qualify for federal assistance, because most of the officers are married and have more than one income for their families.

According to the Compensation Board, the turnover for first-year deputy sheriffs across the state is 21.3 percent, which means that many deputies will be hired and trained by sheriff’s offices only to leave in search of a higher paying job in law enforcement.

“The challenge is recruiting and retaining qualified people to serve in these positions,” Blalock said. “Training a new deputy is a huge commitment of time and resources. Without competitive salaries we run a significant risk of losing highly educated and trained deputies.”

In the current county budget, which was approved in July, the sheriff’s and deputies’ salaries totaled $1,131,279, a three percent increase from the prior fiscal year. This comes after a six-year drought in increases from 2007 to 2012, during which deputies’ salaries did not increase. Blalock received a seven percent increase in his salary, which now totals $96,140.

The Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office employs 18 deputies who are scheduled to work 160 hours in a 28-day cycle. Patrol deputies work 12-hour rotating shifts while the other deputies work eight-hour shifts. All deputies are also on call for various reasons including transports, investigations and emergencies.

The Sheriff’s Association is asking legislators to consider the pay increase during the General Assembly’s winter session. Legislators will convene in Richmond Jan. 11.

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