MARY ANN ANDERSON
After considerable and oftentimes contentious discussions, the Hazlehurst City Council in a called meeting narrowly voted to amend a motion previously adopted during the April 15 regular meeting that was supposed to give pay raises to Hazlehurst’s police officers.
Mayor Bayne Stone had called the meeting to clarify what he termed “misunderstandings” that he and City Attorney Ken W. Smith, after reviewing video recordings of April’s regular session, determined to have occurred.
Ward 2 Councilman John Ramay, in opening last Tuesday night’s called meeting and citing “evidently a confusion” regarding the original motion, asked the council to amend the April 15 decision that was thought to provide the starting salary for not only Hazlehurst Police Department’s new hires, but also existing officers at a minimum of $18 an hour to a cap of $22. With Ramay’s amendment, though, salaries for current officers, as well as all other city departments, would be set in the 2021-22 budget that begins on July 1. Ramay’s motion, in effect, rescinded the raises for current officers that they were sure they were getting.
During the discussion phase of the half-hour meeting, tempers simmered and emotions flared as the council argued the motion.
John Bloodworth, the councilman from Ward 4 and the official liaison between the city and police department, joined the meeting by telephone. He stated that officers of the police department, understaffed with several recent resignations and terminations, are “worn out” and “exhausted” from so much overtime but were “excited” by the vote that would have raised their salaries. He said he didn’t understand how the city could bring in new hires and pay them more money than tenured officers.
“All of our employees are doing a great job,” Bloodworth added, his voice obviously frustrated by Ramay’s motion. “They need to be paid well for the jobs they do.”
But Ward 1 Councilman Dywane Johnson, agreeing that current officers pay needed to be raised, said that the city didn’t need to be “out of budget” and spending “money we don’t have.” He also stated that employees of other departments raised concerns that officers were getting raises while their departments were not.
Ramay and Stone concurred with Johnson, saying the city had to be fair across the board.
“There are other departments that are undermanned right now and in critical need at the same time,” Ramay said. “We just have to balance this as best as we possibly can in each and every department.”
Several members of the police department attended the meeting, including Police Chief Ken Williams. Stone specifically addressed those in law enforcement who were in the room, saying that he wanted the officers to have more money and that the city is trying to solve the issues.
“The police department is going to be taken care of, but we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to pay this money,” Johnson then stated, adding that it may fall back on the citizens of Hazlehurst with the city possibly raising taxes. Ramay echoed Johnson, saying the city was over-budgeted and that it may take an increase in water bills or taxes to offset the budgeting problems.
The mayor pointed out that even if the officers are given a raise now, before the upcoming new budget, that it still wouldn’t cut out the tremendous number of overtime hours that the officers, Williams and the department’s Captain James Mock are working. He also said that only more personnel will alleviate the overtime, before once more firmly repeating himself that the process had to be completed during the fast-approaching budget negotiations.
While the citizens’ comments section is usually not on an agenda for a called meeting, Stone was forgiving and invited audience members to speak, several of whom chose to take advantage of his offer, including part-time HPD officer Perry Wallace, former HPD police and K-9 officer Martin Rea, Jason Wilcox of Hazlehurst, and Baxley police officer Shannon Davis.
Wilcox said in his statement that in his research, he found that HPD has one of the lowest rates of pay in the country, calling it “shameful.”
“Nobody wants to do this job anymore, and one of the things is pay,” Rea told the council. “They need your support, but they need pay, too.”
Davis summed up the officers’ frustration by stating the department is overworked, understaffed and underpaid, all of which Bloodworth had been explaining via telephone throughout the meeting.
When Stone called for the vote on Ramay’s motion, which gives Williams the authority to pay the $18-22 per hour for new hires only and for the salaries of current officers to be considered in the upcoming budget, it passed 3-2 with Johnson, Ramay and Stone voting for it and Bloodworth and Ward 3 Councilwoman Diane Leggett voting no.