ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – Carter County Sheriff Mike Fraley is confident a significant pay raise can help his department fill several open positions.

The Carter County Commission’s Budget Committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a $5/hour pay raise for 133 Carter County Sheriff’s Office employees.

The raise still needs full approval from the entire commission, but the unanimous vote in committee has Fraley confident it will go through.

“I feel better today knowing there’s good news on the horizon,” Fraley said. “I think that we’re going to get where we need to be.”

Fraley said the pay raise would only be for the current budget cycle.

He said he would work with the county commission to secure the pay increase in future budgets.

The department has suffered from short-staffing that has led to potential de-certification of the county jail and the loss of a federal inmate contract.

But sheriff’s office employees said getting the pay up would help them better recruit and retain employees, thus increasing their staffing.

“The number one reason that we lose people is the same reason that we don’t get people, and it’s because of the pay,” said Lt. Daniel Kneaskern.

Short-staffing has also taken a toll on deputies. Corrections officers report having to work several hours of overtime.

Some patrol officers have been forced back into the jail to cover open positions.

“At our lowest numbers, we were staffing at least one person from each patrol shift, every shift in the jail,” said Kneaskern. “Now the numbers are starting to come up and it’s starting to relax, but we still have a ways to go.”

Fraley said the pay has been low compared to surrounding agencies for years, but the raise would give his department the chance to compete.

“This has been going on for over 30 years that officers have been underpaid, and I’ve set out that I was going to try to right the ship on that,” Fraley said. “I think it’s going to be huge for the morale. I think it’s going to surpass some of the surrounding counties.”

The sheriff’s office presented data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to the budget committee that showed the disparity in pay compared to other county sheriff offices.

The current patrol average hourly rate in Carter County is $16.61 compared to $20.38 in the Johnson City metropolitan statistical area and $21.46 in the Kingsport/Bristol metropolitan statistical area.

For the corrections hourly rate, Carter County is currently at $15.83 while Johnson City is $17.09 and Kingsport/Bristol is $18.25.

The $5/hour raise would be for all employees, but by the department’s count, it would give them an advantage with new employees over surrounding counties.

The raise would put starting wages at $18.80 for patrol and $18.47 for corrections. Both are higher than Sullivan and Washington Counties.

For Sgt. Steve Tipton, it would lessen the burden on his workers at the jail.

“It’s a huge boost for a lot of the guys that work for me and helping them stick with the sheriff’s department and not have to seek other employment,” Tipton said.

Fraley said he will be interviewing candidates for open positions this week and was confident the potential pay raise could entice them to join the department.

The funding for the pay raises comes from sheriff’s office reserves from unstaffed positions and money from a federal grant.

Carter County Commissioner and Budget Committee Chair Aaron Frazier said the loss of the federal inmate contract, a revenue stream for the county, and the potential decertification of the jail meant the county needed to take action and get the staffing numbers back up.

“They want to serve in their community, and they want to provide for their families at the same time,” Frazier said. “If we can’t provide a wage where they can actually do that without being on food stamps, then there’s a problem.”

Frazier said he expects a special called meeting late next week to vote on the pay raise.

If everyone on the budget committee stays on board, it would only require five more votes to pass.