Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor urged county leaders Thursday not to chop vacant jobs from his department and sought to explain challenges he faces filling a high number of open positions.
For more than two hours, Pastor and Undersheriff Eileen Bisson took questions and sometimes firm probing from the Pierce County Council.
Afterward, Chairwoman Joyce McDonald said the council hopes to restore four to five of the 14 law enforcement deputy vacancies slated to be cut in County Executive Pat McCarthy’s 2013 budget.
“It is our hope,” said McDonald, R-Puyallup. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
But McDonald said she doesn’t expect the council to spare any of the nine positions McCarthy proposes cutting from the Corrections Bureau at the Pierce County Jail.
After the meeting, McDonald said she had no better understanding why the Sheriff’s Department has the number of vacancies it does or what the actual number is.
The council has heard the number of law enforcement openings has run as high as 22 this year, she said.
“Our numbers are totally different than theirs,” McDonald said.
Council budget consultant Michael Transue said he’ll look into the differences in numbers.
The meeting was one of a series with department heads about next year’s budget. McCarthy has proposed a general fund budget of $274 million, cutting spending by 0.6 percent – or $1.6 million – to offset declining revenues.
Pastor acknowledged the county’s revenue problems but stressed the importance of public safety.
“I want to ask for zero staffing cuts,” Pastor told the council. “I want you to know that we are working to deal with issues of unfilled positions.”
Pastor and Bisson explained their challenges in hiring, from finding qualified candidates and hiring them to dealing with the flux caused by retirements and other resignations.
Pastor said there’s a misconception that the law enforcement side of the Sheriff’s Department has had 14 vacancies since January.
That’s not the case, he said.
“It varies,” Pastor said of the number of vacancies. “It’s high right now.”
Pastor said nine law enforcement deputies have been hired this year, and the number of vacancies dropped to as low as seven.
Bisson reported there are six vacancies in the Corrections Bureau. Three correctional deputies were hired in early October.
“Have you made improvements in your hiring process?” McDonald asked. “That’s something we felt was desperately needed.”
Bisson said “a few minor tweaks” were made. Sometimes, a batch of applicants produces many good candidates, she said. Other times, only a few good candidates emerge.
Pastor said the Sheriff’s Department has shifted more personnel back to recruiting candidates and getting them through the hiring process.
He also said the department has been careful about hiring, not wanting to lay off new employees in a matter of months after their hiring because of budget cuts.
Bisson and Pastor addressed a range of questions, including the sharp rise in overtime costs at the jail due largely to increasing number of inmates with mental health problems.
Bisson said the Sheriff’s Department is striving to contain overtime costs and reduce the number of people brought to the jail with mental health problems. It’s urging the state and its contract agency to step up their mental health services, she said.
Several council members said the state needs to own up to its responsibility and provide more mental health services. Pastor said he and McCarthy already have made such an appeal to the state Department of Social and Health Services.
One of the meeting’s sharpest exchanges came when council member Roger Bush, R-Frederickson, reacted to Bisson reporting a slight increase in the numbers of property and violent crimes.
Bush said the department’s own data show rape, armed robbery, car theft and residential burglary had each increased by about one-third in the second quarter of this year compared with the same period last year.
“Those are serious crime increases,” Bush said.
He said the council has given the department the resources to deal with crime.
“The vacancies that you have referenced today are troubling,” Bush said.
“So noted,” Bisson replied. “I apologize for using those words if that offended you.”
And Bisson said the department will take another look at the crime statistics Bush mentioned.
Putting vacant deputy positions back in the budget will carry a price tag.
Restoring four law enforcement deputies could cost at least $336,000, including benefits. Total annual salary and benefits for a beginning deputy sheriff is $84,036.
McDonald said the council will have to figure out where that money would come from as it puts its budget together. The seven-member panel is expected to approve next year’s budget Nov. 6.