Faced with the threat of losing more veteran agents, the GBI is rallying this year to convince lawmakers to give them their first raise since a 2 percent cost of living increase in 2008. Their goal is to achieve parity with Georgia State Patrol officers, who can make $15,000 more each year than their counterparts at the GBI.
So far the effort has paid off, as House lawmakers included more than $2.4 million in the budget that passed Wednesday to boost the pay of agents and scientists to match trooper salaries. Those raises would be phased in over three years. Senate leaders didn't comment on the proposal, but GBI agents are optimistic the funding will be included in that chamber's budget.
The pay gap has long been a source of frustration for GBI officials. For example, a Georgia State Patrol sergeant earns $58,762, compared to a GBI special agent 3, a similar rank, who earns $43,063.
The agency had hoped to receive a salary boost in 2009, but it was scrapped in the final version of the budget. Since then, 72 agents and scientists who cost $5 million to train have left the agency, said Jamy Steinberg, who is president of the GBI's Fraternal Order of Police lodge.
"We were losing some of the younger ones," said Steinberg. "But if you lose someone who has 18 years of experience and is leaving for as little as $5,000, it's tough. You can replace some of the people but you can't replace the talent."
Some turnover is unavoidable. GBI Special Agent Mike McDaniel said his office has lost several agents to better paying jobs at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But his region has also lost agents to less likely competitors, including a 20-year veteran who left to work for the McIntosh County Sheriff's Department.
"It's a public safety issue. It's about experience," said McDaniel, who is based in Kingsland. "The more experience you have, the better. And when you have to start all over with newer agents who aren't experienced, in the long run it costs taxpayers a lot of money."
GBI Director Vernon Keenan said at a recent House committee meeting that the pay gap is starting to take a toll on morale. He said the turnover among GBI agents and scientists hovers at about 10 percent a year, and he fears it will only increase. Some 28 agents with more than a decade of experience have left in the past four years, he said.
Instead of a career destination, he said, his agency is slowly becoming the training ground for federal and even local departments.
"We're losing agents going to be traffic cops because they make more money working traffic than they will as a criminal investigator for the state of Georgia," Keenan said. "We have the best trained criminal investigators in the country. They do complex work. But they're getting very tired. They're worn out."
Some state lawmakers say they saw this coming when the State Patrol was given the raise several years ago but the GBI wasn't. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said he wants legislators to review how all law enforcement agencies get paid to help reach a more even footing.
"When something is done on one year, it needs to be done on all of them," he said. "Because this hasn't done anything good for morale."
In the meantime, though, veteran agents hope the pay increases can stem the tide.
"The GBI is very good at hiring good people with the desire and motivation to do this job. They make sacrifices and are often away from their families," McDaniel said. "Here's what I'm afraid of: With inexperienced investigators, the quality of the investigation may suffer if something is not done to remedy this situation."