Supervisors consider tax to fund raises for sheriff’s deputies

Merced County supervisors heard residents and sheriff’s deputies plead Tuesday for new money to raise salaries they say are needed to retain senior officers, urging board members to live up to campaign promises to support law enforcement and fight crime.

The five-member panel ended the meeting without a firm answer but floated the idea of proposing a tax measure to fund public safety.

District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said she pitched the idea during a recent meeting of the Merced County Association of Governments when that board discussed a possible public transportation tax measure.

District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion suggested such a tax could support not only the Sheriff’s Office, but the Fire Department, public defenders, the District Attorney’s Office and animal control. “We truly do need to try to figure out some way to get additional officers,” he said.

Sheriff Vern Warnke, who has called for better funding of the department, said he understands the supervisors are in a tough position to make budget decisions but opposes a tax increase.

“I don’t think we should be applying a new tax to the citizens of this county for something they should already be getting,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office has complained it is unable to keep senior employees from leaving to take positions elsewhere with better salaries.

Since January, the vacancy rate at the Sheriff’s Office has climbed to 25 out of 98 sworn-in positions, said Phil Brooks, the county Deputy Sheriff’s Association president, on Monday. Deputies are leaving for higher-paying jobs at other law enforcement agencies or in different fields of work altogether. Depending on rank and position, Merced County deputy coroners, deputy sheriffs and sergeants make anywhere from $36,000 to a little less than $65,000, according to the county website. Brooks said their pay is 48 percent below market value.

Number of homicides in Merced County so far this year

The Sheriff’s Office is working with fewer deputies while violence in the county has increased. There were 30 homicides in Merced County in 2013, a record at that time. That number was trumped in 2014, when the county recorded 32 homicides. Based on the county’s estimated population of 255,793, that is equivalent to 12.5 homicides per 100,000 people, nearly three times the state average, according to the California Department of Justice. The national average is 4.5 homicides per 100,000 people.

Since the beginning of September, six homicides were reported in Merced County, bringing the year’s total to 25. That includes homicides in city limits.

In the 2014-15 budget, Merced County allocated about $55 million of its discretionary budget for public safety, including the Sheriff’s Office, public defenders and the District Attorney’s Office, as well as detention facilities. The total was expected to increase to $58 million in the new fiscal year. Public safety claims nearly 55 percent of the county’s discretionary resources.

A number of deputies and residents spoke during the public comment session of Tuesday’s board meeting, pleading for higher wages for deputies and criticizing supervisors for not following statements of support with action.

“As board members, all of you made statements that you support law enforcement or public safety,” said Mark Taylor, a deputy sheriff. “Was it just campaign rhetoric? Because now when we need your help, your silence is deafening.”

NOW WHEN WE NEED YOUR HELP, YOUR SILENCE IS DEAFENING.

Mark Taylor, a Merced County deputy sheriff

Mark Edwards, who lives in the Beachwood area west of Merced, said he rarely sees patrol cars in his neighborhood. “I don’t feel safe in Merced County anymore.”

Now, residents and deputies worry the high vacancy rates are affecting officer safety and the safety of the communities they patrol.

“An example of the safety issues the sheriff’s department is having is they are responding to high-priority calls with little to no backup,” said Brankel Nobari, another deputy sheriff. “In addition to this, deputies are having to be reactive rather than proactive. This is a major risk in itself.”

The issue is so bad that Warnke said he assisted as a helicopter spotter Monday during an incident in Delhi where numerous law enforcement personnel already were on scene. “We’re out of bodies,” he said.

Warnke said the bigger issue is losing veterans who would train new deputies. “Getting new bodies is not impossible,” he said. “The problem is losing the ability to train these individuals because all our seasoned cops are leaving because they’re a prized commodity with other agencies.”

Merced County Deputy Sheriff’s Association accounts for two of the three unions still in negotiations with the county. Talks have been ongoing since April, and contracts expired in June. Brooks has said the DSA is hoping for a package that will attract new deputies and is fair. Both the county and DSA have expressed hope in reaching an agreement soon, but when that will happen remains unclear.