By Leah Sander
WARSAW — Kosciusko County Council members tentatively gave Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office employees a slightly higher raise for 2022 compared to other county employees.
Council approved by a 5-1 vote a 5% raise for KCSO employees and a 4% hike for all other county employees for next year.
Council President Ernie Wiggins, Vice President Sue Ann Mitchell and Members Jon Garber, Kim Cates and Kathy Groninger were for the increase while Mike Long voted against it. Council member Joni Truex was absent.
The vote followed a long discussion on the topic at the special meeting in which the council also met with county department heads to review individual department budgets.
That stemmed in part to Kosciusko County Sheriff Kyle Dukes’ request earlier this year for a 13% raise for sheriff’s office employees.
That request, as discussed Thursday, was motivated to keep pace with Warsaw Police Department and other police departments. Warsaw City Council adopted a mid-year raise that would hike pay for its newest officers by as much as 10%. Warsaw Police are also in line for another raise along with city employees for 2022.
“As of I think right now, the city officers are making a little more than $100 a week above what our county deputies are making, so that’s what facilitated the request from the sheriff to the wage committee, said Kosciusko County Auditor Michelle Puckett.
“That’s all good and fine, but I’m really struggling with treating one department differently than the other,” said Long.
“I am too,” added Cates.
“Well, I think I understand that – I don’t know if I’m the right person to be the advocate or to answer these questions – but as we had said in our meetings prior, you know as amazing as I am and all that I do for this county, my butt is in a seat in an air-conditioned office and I’m very thankful for that, it’s not on the road, I do not have a gun, I do not have arrest powers and I’m not putting myself in physical harm possibly,” said Puckett.
“But you chose that and they chose that,” Long said. “There’s a choice. Nobody forced anybody into a position. It was clearly a choice, and so if you made a choice, this is what comes with your choice.”
“And the ultimate decision is yours, but when it comes to addressing your concern about treating one department differently than another, well, we treat all of our departments differently based on (a) chart, which was created mainly off of the responsibility and the liability that those employees have on behalf of the county,” Puckett said.
Discussion continued with Puckett noting that sheriff’s office employees had to keep working even during the COVID-19 shutdown, and Long stating that all workers are back to being considered essential again.
Garber pointed out that he believed Dukes was worried about losing officers if they couldn’t keep up with the city’s pay and that of others.
“I think it’s fair to say that our boys are sitting here on the edge of their seat waiting to hear what your determination is going to be,” said Puckett. “Now that does not mean they’re going to leave because we have wonderful, wonderful public servants that are working for our county, but they’re also fathers and mothers and breadwinners for their family, and a $100-$150 a week difference between the city and the county, I mean how much are you going to sacrifice to work in the place that you like to work compared to my kids need braces, I’m going to jump to the other side, because when you’re looking at $7,000 to $10,000 difference in a year’s time, that’s pretty significant.”
Mitchell cited information that the 13% would make up the difference between what the city pays at the entry-level versus the county.
Puckett said the wage committee suggested doing a 10% increase just for the sheriff’s office plus the additional increase that all other county employees would be given.
“But is it fair to say that (Warsaw was) losing officers?” asked Groninger of why Warsaw had done a wage increase.
Puckett said she believed that it was to keep officers.
Wiggins asked if the sheriff’s department was fully staffed, with the answer being it was nearly so.
“So … obviously, they’re able to hire at the current wages,” said Groninger.
The council then started talking about possibly implementing a special local income tax.
Wiggins pointed out the public would wonder why a new tax would be added when the county had $3.6 million in its rainy day fund and money coming in from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“Well, yeah, it’s going to take an explanation … but the ARP money, as I see it, the ARP money is a gift from the heavens that is one time, 40-, 50-year impact,” said Long.
Long added rising costs were a reason to look into implementing a special tax.
“But is the sky really falling? That’s the real question,” said Mitchell, pointing out again the rainy day funds the county had.
She and Long acknowledged those funds would fix the county’s funding issue only temporarily.
The council ultimately voted first for a 5% wage increase for the sheriff’s department and a 3% one for all other employees. That failed with a 3-3 tie, with Cates, Wiggins and Garber voting for it and Mitchell, Groninger and Long against.
Members then approved the 5% and 4% increases.