Rural deputy pay low despite big duties, dangers
By Bill Poovey
MONTEAGLE, Tenn. — Grundy County sheriff's deputy Shane Tate, a father of five, was making $10.50 an hour when he was gunned down in the line of duty.
Deputies are the law in most unincorporated areas across the country, escorting prisoners, acting as courtroom bailiffs, riding patrol and investigating crime. Yet those in rural counties typically make a fraction of what state troopers and city police officers earn, often with no health insurance or other benefits.
"We beat our chests about our soldiers but we don't do that for the people who protect you every day," said former Tennessee Sheriff's Association President Terry Ashe. "These men and women are risking their lives."
While population dictates the minimum pay of Tennessee's elected sheriffs, ranging from about $48,000 to more than $100,000, there is no national or state standard for deputies.
"The political reality is we have a hard time telling the locals what to do," said Tennessee state Sen. Tim Burchett, who sponsored a bill to set minimum salaries that failed last year.
Burchett said differences between urban and rural counties, including varying populations and tax resources, make it hard to develop a statewide approach.
Ladue Boulden, the mayor of Grundy County, where Tate made $22,000 to $23,000 a year, said deputy pay should be higher but small communities like his - the county has about 15,000 residents - "have to live within their means."
No central organization tracks deputies' salaries, which vary widely across the country.
In Wayne County, Tenn., deputies start at $8 an hour but get bumped up to $9 if they finish a 10-week law enforcement training program. In Bryan County, Okla., starting pay for a deputy is $10.38 an hour.
More affluent Cumberland County, Maine, pays new deputies $17.82 an hour. A new, trained deputy earns $25.06 in an hour in Riverside County, Calif., outside Los Angeles.
In Missouri, the deputy sheriff's association says the average salary for a deputy is $22,262 a year, less than it takes to qualify for food stamps.
Missouri Deputy Sheriff's Association President Dave Boehm said deputies in sparsely populated areas make about $17,000 a year, while deputies in suburban counties near St. Louis start at about $30,000. Several years ago, he said, a chief deputy gave up his job to cut grass.
"He was able to make more money in a grass cutting season then he could in a full year as chief deputy of a sheriff's department," Boehm said.
After five years of lobbying, Missouri lawmakers this year voted to boost deputies' salaries, passing a measure that Gov. Matt Blunt was to expected to sign Thursday.
Ron York, president of PolicePay.net, a consulting company that helps law enforcement officers in 35 states negotiate for better pay, said large cities may start police officers at $70,000 a year but some small sheriff's departments pay less than $17,000.
Benefits are also an issue. In Grundy County, health insurance for a family, $800 a month, is set to increase by 7 percent.
Ashe, a sheriff for 26 years, said counties that don't pay enough or provide affordable benefits are doing a "disservice to taxpayers" because deputies leave for other jobs.
He said that unlike a police officer, a deputy has to know civil law to serve lawsuits and court orders.
"You go out there with an attachment to take children out of a bad home and you think that isn't trouble?" Ashe said. "Police officers don't have to do that."
Tate, 29, was shot June 5 by a suspect he was trying to take into custody on a probation violation warrant. The suspect escaped with Tate's gun and eluded a daylong manhunt before fatally shooting himself.
Tate was a county jailer before finishing the law enforcement training academy just two weeks before he died. His family members have declined comment, but law officers are helping collect donations to supplement death benefits that will total several hundred thousand dollars. Survivors include a wife, three children and two stepchildren.
Brian Moran, a Knoxville police officer who is president of the Tennessee Fraternal Order of Police, said law enforcement officers need more leverage in getting raises or better benefits from local elected officials.
A bill now in Congress is aimed at doing that by providing minimal collective bargaining rights for police officers and firefighters.
The measure, which has been approved by the House and is pending in the Senate, doesn't force anyone to join a union and prevents the public safety workers from going on strike, co-sponsor Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., said in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, deputies continue to scrape by.
"It is absolutely disgraceful," Moran said. "It has been our experience that they (officials) won't deal with it until a tragic incident or changes in the law that force it."
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