SIKESTON -- Now that a funding mechanism has been found, county sheriff deputies in Missouri are just two steps away from receiving better pay.
On Tuesday, the Senate approved a bill creating a fund, with money generated by an additional $10 fee charged for processing any civil summons, writ, subpoena or other court order.
"We've been fighting this battle for several years," said Terry Stevens, New Madrid County Sheriff.
The Missouri Sheriffs Association recently conducted an in-depth statewide study on deputy sheriffs. "The disparity was just amazing," said Stevens. Study results found that the average salary is just more than $22,000 -- which means take-home pay would be about $15,500 -- and places several families below the federal poverty level. In some cases, families in lower-
paying counties were drawing state assistance, Stevens added.
In 91 of Missouri's 114 counties, starting salaries for sheriffs falls below $21,000, said Mick Covington, executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs Association.
"There's no way that a man can feed his family on that salary," said Stevens. He noted that deputies in several counties, mostly in the Ozark and northwestern regions of the state, make less than that average.
Mississippi County Deputy Janice McCameron agreed. "It's just about people trying to support their families," she said.
In New Madrid County, however, the average annual pay is about $27,000. "Our deputies are some of the more blessed," said Stevens.
Starting pay is also $27,000 in Scott County, which Sheriff Rick Walter said keeps the turnover rate low.
McCameron said Sheriff Keith Moore is "very much in support of the bill." There, deputies start out making below the average, about $20,000 a year.
Covington said there was talk of making the base pay a minimum of $28,000, but no such language exists in the current bill.
The low pay makes it hard to recruit and retain officers.
"The main advantage would be keeping veteran officers instead of us being a training ground," said McCameron. "But there are just times that people have to move on for more money."
"Obviously (higher pay) will benefit first and foremost the quality of the officer that is going to be available to us," added Stevens. "Agencies across Missouri are losing good, qualified officers to higher-paying jobs -- some outside of law enforcement."
Stevens said that in the past three years, he can remember at least three good officers who left for that reason. "But you can't blame them for wanting to better themselves," he said. Hopefully if the measure is passed, it will give law enforcement agencies a sounder base and a better pool of recruits to choose from.
In some cases deputies are facing long hours and diverted attention by working other part-time jobs to supplement their pay in order to make ends meet.
But, Walter said, that's difficult, too. "This is their primary job," he said. "So whatever they do to supplement their income, their priority is here. If they are called in, they have to leave that other job."
Covington said the fund is unique in that it is statewide, and that some counties will contribute to it, but not reap any real benefits.
"The money will be collected, put into this fund and then be redistributed to the poorest of the poor," he said.
And Walter said he doesn't have a problem with that. "That would save a lot of changing departments," he said. "There's no need for them to go somewhere else, because the adjoining county is paying the same."
Covington encouraged grassroots support for the initiative. "Contact your state senators and representatives," he said.
Stevens said that he does have some questions about the long-term effects of the legislation. But for now, he's focusing on the present. He said "Right now, we want to take care of the ones that we've got."
The bill allows sheriffs departments to receive an additional $10 fee for processing any civil summons, writ, subpoena or other court order.
The money collected goes into the newly created "Deputy Sheriff Salary Supplementation Fund," which will be used to bolster the pay of county deputy sheriffs.
The bill advanced in the Senate on Tuesday and will now move to the House of Representatives.
To track the legislation, go to senate.mo.gov and do a "key word" search for SB935.