Natrona County Sheriff: More Funding Needed, Staffing Levels ‘Critical’
The Natrona County Sheriff is deeply concerned that inadequate funding for his office may soon lead to pronounced, negative effects for county residents, and the Natrona County Board of Commissioners evidently will not be taking action to address the issue for the upcoming fiscal year.
Early next week, the board is set to approve a budget for fiscal year 2019. That budget, at this point, would not include Sheriff Gus Holbrook's June 5 request for additional funding aimed at keeping current employees and attracting new ones to bolster the understaffed sheriff's office.
In an interview with K2 Radio News on Wednesday, Holbrook and Undersheriff Mark Sellers said the requested funding would raise salaries to the levels offered by the Casper Police Department and provide a two-percent cost-of-living adjustment.
Commissioners, in a preliminary vote, have essentially axed the proposal already.
Instead, the board plans to approve the two-percent cost-of-living adjustment only, and extend it to all county employees. Board of Commissioners Chairman John Lawson said he, Vice Chairman Forrest Chadwick and Paul Bertoglio were the three who voted to maintain current funding, plus the cost-of-living increase.
Lawson said the budget has been finalized and the commission will vote on a resolution approving the budget during their next meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Holbrook says that while he doesn't feel that his people are more deserving of a raise than any other county employee, the cost-of-living increase alone is not enough to maintain the quality of service that Natrona County residents deserve from his office.
The last office-wide raise was in 2013 to the tune of 3 percent. In July 2014, a raise of 2.5 percent was given to civilian staff only.
The sheriff's office is currently understaffed by nine deputies and five civilian employees. Those numbers may not sound like much to the average county resident, but Sellers says the impact of those open positions is felt every day as others pick up the slack.
"[We would] already be at a very minimum staffing if we were fully staffed," Sellers said. "But we're not fully staffed -- we're down nine deputies."
"This is the worst I've ever seen it," Sellers said of the deficiency. Holbrook agreed.
To compound the issue, Holbrook and Sellers say the agency is unable to offer competitive pay and benefits in order to attract an adequate number and quality of new deputies. So while administrators work to recruit applicants and train those who meet the criteria -- a prolonged process that hardly offers a near-term solution -- the sheriff's office is poised to lose additional deputies who want better pay and benefits.
Meanwhile, 18 current employees are eligible for retirement and could elect to go that route at any time.
"What's to keep a guy here if his retirement's not going up?" Sellars asked. "They can retire at twenty years, go get another job and be making more money."
"And bonuses don't cut it," Holbrook chimed in. "Because bonuses don't help the bottom line for their retirement. It's a one-time chunk of money in your pocket, but it doesn't put anything in your retirement system that will count towards it."
"We will lose more people if we don't have an attractive package to keep them," Holbrook said. "Two percent is not sufficient for maintaining our staff."
Law enforcement agencies across the country, including many in Wyoming, are aggressively working to recruit new officers, and the market is intensely competitive.
Finding suitable candidates in the first place can be tricky: in addition to passing background checks, drug tests, medical exams and fitness trials, prospective officers must meet agency standards and complete training courses. The job itself is strenuous, and with increased scrutiny of peace officers nationwide in recent years -- not to mention high-profile incidents of violence against them -- fewer people are willing to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Often, out of a pool of roughly 100 applicants, an agency ends up moving to hire only a handful. That has been the recent experience of agencies including the Casper Police Department.
In an already thin market, law enforcement agencies that are unable to offer competitive pay and benefits can find themselves struggling to maintain adequate staffing levels. Serious local competition for the sheriff's office includes the Converse County Sheriff's Office and the Casper Police Department.
A significant portion of Holbrook's office is made up of employees who have been on the job for over five years, and in the current environment that amplifies the need for a competitive pay structure in order to retain those employees.
Mike Burnett, a charter member of the Wyoming Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 11 and former National Fraternal Order of Police chairman of trustees, says the Casper Police Department is a good example of a nationwide trend: intense efforts to recruit officers who already have years of experience in law enforcement.
"They've got a lot of good quality officers that are working there that have served from one to four years and such," Burnett said. "But what they're lacking is that experienced officer."
Burnett said current CPD officers can receive a $1,000 bonus for bringing in a new officer, and new hires can be eligible for bonuses from $3,000 for those fresh out of the academy up to $12,500 for current Wyoming peace officers who transfer to the department and meet certain criteria.
"The sheriff's office has got some top-notch deputies and staff, both civilian and sworn. They are second to none," Burnett said. "They've got experience, but they also have families and they've got to do the right thing for themselves and their families."
"So now they're saying, 'Okay, the commissioners are not willing to help try to retain us and keep us, so what are our other opportunities?' Well, they can look straight downstairs [where the Casper Police Department is housed] and see a great opportunity to make several thousand dollars just in a signing bonus, not to mention wages and everything else," Burnett continued, saying the salaries at the Casper Police Department would provide transferring deputies a boost of $500-$600 per month.
Burnett says it's not about making the sheriff's office competitive with law enforcement agencies in California or New York. The focus, he says, needs to be on finding a way to retain current employees who are looking to leave for a better deal without having to uproot their families to do so. Better compensation packages are available locally.
Still, the competition for experienced officers is taking place at a national level.
"If you want to look to Washington [State], where a deputy just transferred from here, took a lateral out there and is making thirty thousand dollars a year more than he was making here. That's a huge impact to that officer and his family," Burnett explained.
When experienced deputies leave the sheriff's office, they take their instincts, knowledge and personal skills with them. Left to fill the gap are newer officers whose inexperience can adversely affect community relationships and the extensive operations of the sheriff's office.
"That's what's important here -- the county is running the risk of the quality of service from the law enforcement community to the public, because they want to find reasons not to address it and excuses instead of finding solutions to it," Burnett emphasized.
"Over the last twenty years, [Natrona County residents] have grown accustomed to having experienced, quality officers," Burnett continued. "Now we see that possibly jeopardized because commissioners are not willing to step up and address it."
Burnett said competitive pay is necessary to protect the money invested by taxpayers into training new deputies. He says a "huge" amount of money is required to hire and train a deputy, then allow them to grow and develop into a seasoned officer over the next few years.
"It's thousands of dollars invested in these deputies to have them trained," Burnett said. "And where's your return on the investment? Well, it's being returned to other departments when they leave."
Wyoming Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 11 President Dianna Steinberg told K2 Radio News on Wednesday that the Converse County Sheriff's Office is actively recruiting detention officers currently staffing the Natrona County Detention Center.
"They need officers that are trained and understand a bigger jail. And why wouldn't they go? It sounds like they're giving travel pay," Steinberg said, meaning a Natrona County officer could leave their job for the Converse County jail without having to relocate. "We're already trained, so you've just lost that trained deputy."
At the Converse County jail, Steinberg says detention officers deal with roughly 50 inmates. That's compared with a typical number of 300-400, and a maximum of 600, at the Natrona County Detention Center. "Why wouldn't you [go]?" she asked.
Burnett added that while the sheriff's office is currently down nine deputies and 18 deputies are eligible to retire at will, another four to six deputies are actively looking to leave.
"It's not a matter of 'well, this could happen,' or 'maybe,' or 'hypothetically' -- this is the real fact of what's taking place," Burnett said. "This has been presented to the commissioners, and what is the response?"
In a phone interview with K2 Radio News on Wednesday, John Lawson said he and the other commissioners feel that salary increases for sheriff's office employees are warranted. At the same time, the county is still working its way out of the economic downturn felt statewide, and particularly in Natrona County.
Lawson said commissioners sent a letter to all county department heads and elected officials requesting budget submissions.
"We asked that they please hold the line one more year at least with their budget, other than to include a two-percent cost-of-living increase for their employees," Lawson explained. He said that over the past two years, the county's revenue stream has shown some improvement.
But after discussing three separate scenarios for funding the sheriff's office based on different options, Lawson said commissioners wanted to maintain a balanced budget in the next fiscal year.
While the funding level for the sheriff's office is not set to increase, save the cost-of-living adjustment, Lawson suggested that Holbrook will be receiving adequate funds to address staffing and retention issues. In fiscal year 2018, Lawson said, the sheriff's office did not spend roughly $1 million of its budget.
"And we turned right around and funded them at the same level again for [fiscal year 2019]," Lawson said. "So if they didn't spend a million dollars this year, and we go and turn around and fund them at the same level again, they need to take a look at that and make some management decisions. That's their decision with regard to the budget we provided them in [fiscal year 2019]."
"That should allow them some flexibility, since they didn't use a million of it this year," Lawson added. Most of the unspent money had been allocated for salaries.
Holbrook responded later Wednesday, putting the amount of unspent funds from fiscal year 2018 at closer to $900,000 and saying the amount would be sufficient only to fill the vacant positions -- not enough to also improve less-than-competitive salaries, which he identified as the reason for the vacancies in the first place.
"We have not been able to fill those positions, because we lose them as fast as we fill the positions, and that's the issue," Holbrook emphasized.
Commissioner Matt Keating said in a phone interview Thursday that he fully supported funding Holbrook's proposal. But, he was outvoted.
"It's very expensive to train sheriff's deputies and costs tens of thousands of dollars to bring them up to sufficient training to where they can serve as a sheriff's deputy," Keating said. "I was told by the sheriff that there are guys who are looking outside the state for work."
"When we [the commissioners] had the discussion last Tuesday, it was basically left where the sheriff's office was going to be able to receive the two-percent cost-of-living adjustment without the wage adjustment."
Keating also referenced the unspent money from the sheriff's office budget for fiscal year 2018. He said that because $1 million was returned to the county general fund, and Holbrook's proposal for the cost-of-living adjustment and wage adjustment totaled $616,000, the proposal made sense.
"I thought it was going to be a pretty easy sell, but I was wrong," Keating said. "I one-hundred percent want to see the sheriff's office give the two-percent cost-of-living adjustment with the wage adjustment, then be able to staff at one-hundred percent because of the essential service that they provide to our community."
Keating added that since joining the board of commissioners in 2005, he has worked to keep wages at the sheriff's office in stride with the salary structure offered by the Casper Police Department.
Commission Vice Chairman Forrest Chadwick had not returned a request for comment as of 4 p.m. Thursday. Should he elect to provide comment following publication, this story would be updated.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Commissioner Paul Bertoglio said Wednesday he would like to examine the possibility of a short-term salary restructuring for deputies.
"I believe that there is the ability to sit down and work within their existing budget to give that raise internally," Bertoglio said. "And if we get to the end of the year and they're over-budget, let's deal with it at that point."
"We need to be able to present a balanced budget based on our projected revenues, and if we do that, there's no way that we can give the two-percent raise to everyone, plus the additional," Bertoglio explained. "Those funds just aren't available, or they don't appear to be at this point."
"Having said that, we are getting some more numbers in and we're going to have a little clearer picture, but I don't know if we have the ability once we publish, within the Public Records Act, whether we can change the budget at the last minute," Bertoglio added. He said he planned to address that issue Thursday with other commissioners.
Bertoglio described the competitive hiring environment within the industry as a catch-22.
"Once it starts, everybody else tries to catch up, and wages keep going up," he continued. "But our ability to fund them is subject to the revenues that are available to us, and the county is running extremely lean right now, and that's our biggest challenge is that leanness."
The Road and Bridge Department could also use more people, and the library needs more funding as well, Bertoglio said.
"We''re coming out of the bottom of a bust, a downturn, and as things pick up obviously the ability to fund becomes easier," he said. "I would like to sit down and see if we can't look at how they're set up and if we get to mid-year and we have more revenues, we can adjust their budget at that point in time. I just don't know if we have the ability at this point in time to make that adjustment."
Commissioner Rob Hendry had recommended that the board approve a 5-percent cost-of-living adjustment across the board for all county employees, but he was out-voted.
"It would have been tight on the budget," Hendry said Wednesday afternoon. He pointed out that the sheriff's office accounts for the largest portion of the county budget.
"It's pretty hard to compete. There are some real problems not having wages up there," Hendry added. "The city is stealing our people, and other places are as well because they're offering sign-up bonuses. If you take a twelve-thousand-dollar sign-up bonus, that's a thousand dollars a month. And boy, we can't compete with that."
"It's too bad, but that's the way it is," Hendry said.
"We're losing every year," Steinberg said Wednesday of sheriff's office employees.
"If it truly is just the two percent [cost-of-living adjustment], then they've lost money again. Because pretty much every year, everything has gone up, but we haven't seen a pay raise. So we've taken a pay loss every year," Steinberg explained.
"Taxes went up -- taxes went up on our house, taxes went up on our plates, the price of living went up -- we didn't get a price-of-living raise," She continued. "Five years later, we're still not getting it, and we're not going to compare to all these other places that are trying to recruit us."
"And I can't blame them for wanting to leave," Steinberg said. "They have to do what's right for their family and their own retirement."
Steinberg said the commissioners may not want to see it as five years of pay decreases for sheriff's office employees. However, she emphasizes, that has been the practical effect.
"The fewer employees we have, the more critical it's becoming," Steinberg added. "If we keep losing our experienced officers, we're going to have the new training the new, and that never works well."
Burnett described such a scenario as "Tuesday training Monday." He and Steinberg hope it can be avoided by ponying up the money to retain experienced deputies and staff.
"With the sheriff's office, we have a lot of loyal and dedicated deputies. But the problem is, it's coming to the point of they have to get past the loyalty in order to provide for their family," Steinberg said.
"They've hung in there, and they've hung in there, and they really had a lot of hopes on this one, and I hope it works out. Because this is going to be a big letdown for them after all this waiting, and staying loyal, and being there, and then finding out that there's nothing for them again."