Pay a problem for police force, chief says

LAWRENCEVILLE — Public safety officials said Thursday a pay raise and the addition of three more ambulance units to the county could save lives in Gwinnett.

During hearings over the county government’s 2014 budget, Police Chief Charlie Walters said one of the biggest challenges to the force is the high turnover rate for police officers after four years without a pay raise.

“We’ve got to stop the bleeding,” Walters said of people who often join the police department for its highly touted training then leave after a few years to join a nearby agency that pays more. “We’re not growing leaders for the future. We’ve got to make this a preferred place to live and work.”

Officers have left recently for jobs with the county school system and other metro departments. The city of Brookhaven’s force took five in one day, Walters said, offering a much higher salary than Gwinnett.

Walters has made the pitch before, but in trying economic times, officials have struggled to balance the county budget due to lower property taxes in the wake of dropping property values.

While the county is expecting a more stable tax base in 2014, Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said she cannot yet say whether pay raises will be coming.

“We recognize that all the county employees have been going without raises,” Nash said. “But the biggest hurdle is the rising cost of health care.”

Also on Thursday, Fire Chief Casey Snyder asked the budget review team, which includes four volunteer residents, consider adding three ambulance units to county fire stations.

While the department has planned for the opening of a new station next to the fledgling Georgia Gwinnett College, Snyder said he would prefer any extra resources in 2014 go toward the new crews because ambulance crews are often spread too thin across Gwinnett.

In recent years, he said, an increase in the 55-plus population and other factors have meant that ambulances are needed for transport to the hospital — as opposed to responding and helping someone at a scene and then returning for service.

The county currently operates 30 fire stations, 23 of which also house ambulance crews.