Four years ago, after longtime Wilson County Sheriff Wayne Gay lost re-election in the Democratic primary, local residents learned that he was among the highest-paid sheriffs in the state. Gay had been making more than $160,000 a year in salary and other compensation.
The pay surprised the man who bested him in that race. Calvin Woodard Jr., a former State Bureau of Investigation agent, told the Wilson Times that he would support a reduction in the sheriff’s salary if he won.
But that didn’t happen. The county commissioners, who determine the sheriff’s pay, did not change it. Today, Woodard makes the same $160,000-plus and is the third-highest-paid sheriff in North Carolina, according to state treasurer’s records for 2013.
That a sheriff would be paid more in rural Wilson County, with a population of about 82,000, than in Wake, Guilford, Forsyth or Durham – urban counties with 280,000 to nearly 1 million residents – has some sheriffs across the state scratching their heads.
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The Wilson County example spotlights disparities in a statewide system that leaves a sheriff’s pay up to the county commissioners, who otherwise have little oversight of the sheriff’s office. As a result, there is not always a consistent correlation between pay levels and the scope of the sheriff’s responsibilities.
“With all due respect to the sheriff there (in Wilson County), he has nowhere near the responsibilities that I have,” said Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes, who made $16,000 less than Woodard last year. “I’ve got a jail that tonight’s got a thousand people in it. I’ve got two jails, two courthouses, a prison farm, all of my law-enforcement responsibilities – and I’ve got a half-million people in my county.”
A News & Observer review of state treasurer’s data shows a wide variation in how much sheriffs are paid across the state. Clay County Sheriff Victor Davis made just under $45,000 last year. The best-paid sheriff in the state, Mecklenburg’s Chipp Bailey, made four times that at more than $182,000. His pay includes more than $175,000 in salary and a $6,700 longevity payment.
Nearly all of North Carolina’s 100 county sheriffs have the same duties, which include patrolling rural roads, investigating crimes, running jails, providing courtroom security, serving court papers, issuing gun permits and registering sex offenders.
In most cases, less populous counties pay their sheriffs lower salaries. Of the 22 sheriffs who made $100,000 or more last year, all but three worked in counties with more than 100,000 residents.
The most populous counties have the biggest jails and courthouses, but these are urban counties where much of the law enforcement burden is handled by city police departments rather than the sheriff. Two counties, Mecklenburg and Gaston, don’t require patrolling by sheriff’s deputies.
Clerk of court pay scale
Most states are similar to North Carolina in that they allow county officials to set pay for their sheriffs, but a few states have taken steps to create more standardized pay systems. North Carolina took over the pay for another locally elected office, the clerk of superior court, as part of a series of court reforms that began in the 1960s. The pay scale is based on population, with the lowest-paid clerks of court making an annual salary of $83,390 a year and the highest $113,958.
One of North Carolina’s lowest-paid sheriffs says the state should step in to make salaries more uniform.
Tyrrell County Sheriff Darryl Liverman runs a nine-deputy department that provides law enforcement for the state’s smallest county, with 4,100 residents. He doesn’t run a jail, but he personally serves papers and patrols the roads – work that sheriffs in larger counties can hand off to subordinates.
Sometimes, Liverman said, he’s the only officer working a shift for the department.
He made $50,034 in salary and other pension-eligible pay last year. That made him the third-lowest-paid sheriff.
“What I would like to see is at least a minimum that everybody makes,” Liverman said.
Bailey, who is retiring this year after six years as Mecklenburg’s sheriff, said it makes sense for county commissioners to set the pay.
“The commissioners have a better sense for what their sheriff is doing and whether they support that sheriff and that sheriff’s efforts,” Bailey said.
In Wilson County, Gay’s pay created turmoil when it became public in 2010. The Wilson Times reported that some Republican commissioners – who were in the minority – said they had not been fully informed about at least one of the sheriff’s pay increases.
When Gay’s pay surged ahead of then-County Manager Ellis Williford’s, it sparked a debate about which of the two should make more money. Rather than cut the sheriff’s pay, the commissioners increased Williford’s so that he made slightly more than Gay. Williford has since left the job, and the commissioners are paying the new manager substantially less.
The commissioners have not returned to the issue of the sheriff’s pay. One Republican commissioner, Chris Hill, said he asked a Democratic commissioner about it late last year. The commissioner, whom Hill declined to identify, showed no interest in taking it up.
“It was shot down, and I didn’t pursue it any further,” said Hill. He said his request has nothing to do with politics.
“It’s nothing against Calvin Woodard,” Hill said. “It’s just a matter of we need to do what’s right for our taxpayers.”
Challenger promises pay cut
Woodard, a Democrat, is seeking re-election in November. His Republican challenger, Joey Gardner, has said if he were elected he would cut his salary to $87,771, and ask commissioners to devote the difference to increasing the salaries of his deputies.
That proposed salary is based off the filing fee county officials have set for candidates who seek the office. The filing fee, under state law, is supposed to be the equivalent of 1 percent of the salary. Gardner said county officials told him the filing fee reflects the low end of a salary range for that position.
Gardner is a retired law enforcement administrator for the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. If elected, he would continue to receive a yearly pension of roughly $54,000, treasurer’s records show.
One of Gay’s pay increases, roughly $10,000, was awarded by the Wilson commissioners when the sheriff took over the county animal shelter. Woodard said in 2010 that he would seek to redirect this money to the deputies instead.
“Money doesn’t matter,” Woodard told the Wilson Times then. “I grew up with very little. I always adjust. When I worked in the sheriff’s department, I always worked extra hours, and I never asked for pay for that.”
Efforts to reach Woodard, 44, by phone and email through his public office and his campaign were unsuccessful.
Under North Carolina law, the sheriff does not report to the board of commissioners. But the commissioners have some control because they set the sheriff’s operating budget.
State law allows commissioners to reduce the sheriff’s pay, but any change does not take effect immediately. The commissioners must make any pay cut by passing a resolution at least 14 days before the end of the filing period for the next election. The pay decrease would happen once the winner of the election takes office.
Mecklenburg County’s commissioners took that action in 2013 in advance of this year’s election. Bailey is retiring, so the seat is open. They set the minimum salary for Bailey’s successor at $112,800, cutting it by roughly one-third. Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said she would likely negotiate a higher salary based on the winner’s experience and education.
She said county studies put the “market pay” for heads of large departments, such as the sheriff’s office, at about $159,500.
“If we were to treat them like other department directors, we would bring them as close to market pay as we could,” Diorio said.
Treasurer’s records show at least two other counties have reduced the pay of incoming sheriffs in recent years – both cases involving men who were appointed to serve out unfinished terms. Moore County Sheriff Neil Godfrey was appointed at a salary of $107,500, which was a $7,500 reduction, while Northampton County Sheriff Jack Smith took office with a $55,383 salary that is nearly $23,000 less than what his predecessor had been paid.
Since the Wilson County commissioners did not act in 2010 or before the 2014 election season, the sheriff’s pay will remain unchanged for at least the next four years at the same level Gay received before he left office – unless the winner voluntarily reduces his pay.
In an interview, Gay said he deserved his pay based on his experience and performance. He was the state’s longest-serving active sheriff when left office. His $160,000 pay included a $145,000 salary, car and clothing allowances, and a longevity payment.
Over his long career, Gay gained political influence as a fundraiser for statewide candidates and the co-owner of a politically connected business that had a contract to sell supplemental insurance to state employees.
He said the commissioners should have taken steps to reduce the salary before the 2010 election because his challenger, Woodard, had far less experience. He said they should have reduced it before this year’s election as well.
“That’s why something needs to be done, because it just does not make sense,” Gay said. “There’s something wrong with the system.”
Charlotte Observer reporter Ames Alexander contributed.