Salary Issues Reach Critical Stage As Morale Suffers Among DNR Rangers

A significantly smaller force of rangers is doing more work, yet raises haven't even kept up with the cost of living. As morale sags, an exodus of talented professionals who leave DNR to work at other agencies could increase.

Daryl Kirby | February 23, 2007

A passion for hunting, fishing and the outdoors is something that can get in your blood. For some, the passion is so great they decide to make it their life’s work.

Those are the types of individuals that fill the ranks of Georgia DNR’s Law Enforcement Section. Referred to by some as game wardens, these men and women enter into a profession that quickly becomes a lifestyle. They spend long nights away from families, and the work is specialized, often dangerous and far broader than the general public’s perception of checking licenses and life jackets. The priority for these folks is protecting our natural resources. Yet DNR law enforcement is often the first called for special details — from working floods and other disasters, to security details at special events like the Olympics or the G8 Summit, to helping a local sheriff’s office find a lost child.

If they are under-appreciated and under-paid, it is likely because this bunch has always gone about doing the jobs they love, while — to a fault— avoiding attention.

When DNR Law Enforcement personnel, from rangers to high-brass, from all over the state, spend their day off at the capitol in Atlanta asking legislators for help, you better believe they need it. They’ve been to Atlanta twice in the past three weeks.

Salary issues, combined with significant hits on staff numbers and inadequate equipment due to DNR budget cuts, have taken a toll on the morale of DNR’s law enforcement rangers. Good people — that sportsmen need — are leaving DNR. If the exodus continues, sportsmen and the resource will suffer. Based on the current mood of dozens of conservation rangers from across the state who spoke to GON, if the issues aren’t addressed, the situation will reach crisis level. Code red.

Part of the problem is the general state of an agency that has been hit hard by budget cuts over the past decade. From a high of 252 sworn officers, DNR Law Enforcement now has only 204. Three new officers are being trained, and with funding, that total number of sworn officers could increase to 222, but 15 positions are held vacant with no opportunity to fill without state money. Fewer rangers means they are spread thin. If you live in a county where one ranger is trying to cover your county and two others, response time to a night-hunting complaint is certainly affected.

Another glaring problem within all state law enforcement, not just DNR but also State Patrol, GBI and other agencies, is something referred to as salary compaction. People with 10 years on the job make about the same — in some cases less — than someone with five years of service.

A DNR conservation ranger with five years experience has an annual salary of $34,383.14. An officer in his same region with 12 years experience makes exactly the same, $34,383.14. A ranger with 20 years experience makes $34,993.92. The state is telling a 20-year veteran that his 15 years of service is worth an extra $610 in annual salary.

More than 75 POST-certified peace officers from DNR traveled to the capitol February 21 to ask for help from legislators with salary issues.

The salary-compaction issue is the result of several factors. First, the merit-step salary increases were eliminated about 10 years ago and replaced with Georgia Gain, which has not been adequately funded. In an effort to remain competitive in recruiting good candidates for law-enforcement positions, salaries increases have focused only on entry-level positions.

There are some in state government who recognize the dire situation that salary compaction is creating within our state law enforcement agencies. The House of Representatives formed a study committee that spent last summer investigating the salaries and benefits of Georgia’s state law enforcement agencies, everything from DNR, GBI and State Patrol to Department of Corrections and highway-safety officers. The results of the study committee’s work were published last month, and it included a recommendation to immediately fund plans by State Patrol and GBI to fix their salary-compaction issues. For DNR, Corrections, Pardons & Paroles and other state law-enforcement agencies, the study committee recommends solutions that would be phased-in by 2010.

Will that be too late for some conservation rangers?

It wouldn’t be surprising if the employment classifieds were the most popular section of the newspaper in DNR offices. Love for your job, at some point, is going to be overwhelmed by a dose of reality that ain’t pretty.

Once a ranger quits, it takes more than a year for a replacement to be interviewed, hired and trained. Sportsmen suffer from degraded service each time an experienced ranger quits. Experienced rangers know every dirt road and pig trail in their counties. Years on the job makes them better at their jobs.

When that new hire finally begins work and comes into the office, the conservation ranger with 20 years of experience who didn’t quit is faced with this reality — that new guy is making about as much, and the buddy who quit to take a federal job just got a big salary increase.

Mid-level conservation rangers don’t need the want ads, they’re being recruited by federal law-enforcement agencies. In the past several years, 19 conservation rangers have left DNR to take other law-enforcement positions — 15 with federal law-enforcement agencies. Just recently, DNR lost both its Officer of the Year and its Investigator of the Year.

Our experienced conservation rangers are attractive to federal agencies because of their diverse training, and because the hiring standards for DNR Law Enforcement are higher than most other law-enforcement agencies.

An agency that in the past rarely lost a conservation ranger other than for retirement is now seeing them walk away from jobs that they love, but simply can’t afford to keep.

Rangers aren’t just sitting around waiting, hoping for help. DNR law enforcement rangers have formed the Georgia Ranger Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge. The lodge is open to any DNR POST-certified officers, and membership includes Game Management, Fisheries and Parks employees who have gone through law-enforcement training and have been certified as peace officers.

Sgt. Stan Elrod was elected president of the lodge, which in less than a year has grown to a membership of 170.

“I have a great job,” Stan said. “I’m in my 14th year, and I love what I do. These people love their jobs. These are not the type of people to gripe, and we’re not complaining now. We just need help. We’re losing good people.

“We formed the lodge for a voice, to let people know who we are, what we do and what our needs are. We need better pay, better benefits, and we need to fix salary compaction,” Stan said.

It is estimated that it will take $1.8 million annually to fix the salary compaction issue within the DNR Law Enforcement Section.

“It’s frustrating for our folks to be sitting with State Patrol guys and hear them talking about what came out of the study committee for them. All our guys can do is look at the floor — it’s frustrating to not be included,” Stan said. “They think, ‘How’d we get left off. What’s wrong with us?’

“We’re not asking for a lot, just to be included, to be equal.”

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