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Georgia plans $1,000 bonuses to responders with federal cash
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at Lockheed Martin on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Marietta, Ga. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday that he will use federal COVID-19 aid to pay $1,000 bonuses to every police officer, sheriff's deputy, firefighter and emergency medical technician statewide.

Kemp made the announcement flanked by House Speaker David Ralston, fellow Republican who had proposed an earlier version of the idea in July. Joining the governor were a number of law enforcement and fire officials.

Other workers who will be eligible include prison and jail guards, probation and parole officers and 911 dispatchers. The governor also plans $300 payments to volunteer firefighters across Georgia. His office said the payments should cost up to $100 million. 

"We will stand with our public safety officials, period," Kemp said, "Others may talk of defunding their departments, slashing their budgets and vilifying their professionals. We're going to re-fund or fund our public safety officials and let them know the people of this state and its leaders are backing them as well as their families."

Ahead of 2022 state elections, many Georgia Republicans are trying to make the case that voters shouldn't trust Democrats on public safety, even though state government has traditionally had a limited role in fighting crime, with most responsibility falling to local officials.

Republicans have focused heavily on the city of Atlanta, although shootings have risen nationwide. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is pushing a $70 million crime-fighting plan that includes 250 more police officers for her city.

State Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, said members of her party don't oppose the bonuses but would like to see more transparency around how Kemp is deciding to spend federal money.

"Folks who are first responders are very hardworking and they're underpaid, especially for the valuable public service they provide," Parent said.

A COVID-19 relief law signed by President Joe Biden in March included $350 billion for states and local governments to spend on public health, economic initiatives, infrastructure and government services. Many governments are still working on spending plans, and the U.S. Treasury Department still has not finalized rules. Governments have until the end of 2024 to decide how to spend the money. 

Georgia has nearly $4.8 billion that Kemp controls. The governor announced earlier that he would direct the money to expand high-speed internet access, rehabilitate and expand water and sewer systems and offset economic harm from the pandemic, setting up committees to screen proposals.

Georgia already used federal money to pay $1,000 bonuses to K-12 and preschool teachers, university employees, and state workers making less than $80,000 a year. Some employees, like state prison guards or state troopers, will get a second payment after Monday's announcement.

Florida recently paid $1,000 bonuses to police, firefighters, medical personnel and teachers. In May and June 2020, New Hampshire paid weekly stipends to first responders, including volunteers. Other states have paid hazard pay to some workers, like $250 Louisiana paid to frontline workers last year.

Kemp's office cited employment data showing about 80,000 employees statewide. About another 10,000 statewide are volunteer firefighters, officials said.

Chad Black, fire chief in northeast Georgia's Habersham County, said his department is budgeted for 66 full-time and 33-part time workers, and has about 40 volunteers. It provides emergency medical services countywide and fire services in unincorporated areas.

"It's not life-changing money, of course, but it shows people are thinking about what we're dealing with," Black said at the Capitol after the announcement. He said four employees are currently sick with COVID-19 including one who is hospitalized.

Habersham County paid a $300 bonus to essential workers last year and Black said the county plans another $500 bonus for employees in November, using federal COVID-19 relief money the county has received.

"I've got people picking up seven or eight patients a day with COVID," Black said.

Kemp said the money is not hazard or premium pay, as authorized by federal law, but is intended to help the workers cover costs they have incurred from exposure to members of the public who may have COVID-19. Workers won't be required to document expenses. 

Individual public safety agencies, including private ambulance companies will apply for the money between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, and get money based on the number of employees they had in August. Local governments must document volunteer firefighter hours.

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