PAOLA — When Wayne Minckley was promoted to undersheriff in 2011, one of his first tasks was to hire a jailer.
“For that one (jailer) position, we had 123 applications,” Minckley said. “And that was in a two- or three-week period.”
Fast forward eight years, and the deep pool of applicants has virtually dried up.
“When I have an opening for a jailer now, I get maybe 10 applications in a month’s time,” Minckley said.
After the vetting process, Minckley said, he’s typically down to one or two candidates who meet the basic requirements for the position.
“These last two years have been very tough,” he said.
It’s also difficult to fill the deputy jailer and deputy sheriff rosters, because of vacancies or new employees who are still in training, Minckley said. The minimum training is three months for a deputy jailer and six months for a deputy sheriff. Other training is involved beyond the initial basic and technical training, he said.
“We have eight deputies on patrol and we should have 12,” Minckley said in June. “Those other four are in training and we won’t be able to get them on their own for about six months. In the jail, it’s the same way. If we’re short-staffed in the jail and you have 60 inmates, those officers can be in danger, and we want them to be safe.
“I might have painted a pretty bleak picture, but I can see it going south in a hurry, and I don’t want that,” he said.
Step in right direction
Minckley and Sheriff Frank Kelly have been advocating over the past two months for county commissioners to consider establishing a new pay scale for the sheriff’s office that is separate from the other county departments — because of the unique role that law enforcement officers serve, and because the county’s proximity to the metro area makes law enforcement a highly competitive field.
The proposed scale incorporates steps up in pay for each year of service that goes beyond the annual 3 or 4 percent cost-of-living increase county employees customarily receive, according to salary proposals distributed at recent county study sessions.
“It’s really affecting deputy sheriffs and deputy jailers, because these are the folks we are having difficulty retaining,” Minckley said of the salary proposal. “It’s taking their current pay rate, plugging them into a new scale, so the longer they stay the more their pay is going to raise.
“I’m not talking Johnson County wages. I’m taking kind of their methodology on how they are retaining their employees by increasing their pay quicker,” he said.
The sheriff’s office is losing a lot of employees between five and 10 years of service to other departments, primarily because of pay, Minckley said.
“I’m not saying every case is because of pay, but a large portion are,” he said. “Once our officers are hired, you maybe get a 3 or 4 percent cost-of-living each year, but there’s really no steps.”
During their study sessions in July, county commissioners expressed reluctance to focus on one department rather than looking at the county’s pay structure for all departments.
They also expressed concern about the turnover rate at the jail, compared to the rest of the county’s staff. The county’s employee turnover rate is about 10 percent overall, but 40 percent at the jail.
Being a jailer is a difficult job, commissioners acknowledged, with some new jailers right out of high school who have not had a full-time job before. For that first job to be overseeing inmates is a huge responsibility. Nevertheless, some commissioners said the retention issue needs more study.
“I’m very concerned about the 40 percent turnover at the jail,” Commissioner Rob Roberts said. “I want to better understand that 40 percent turnover.”
County commissioners also said it was too late in the budget season (the 2020 county budget hearing is Aug. 7) to make a decision about spending additional money in the general fund for 2020.
“I can’t see just working on one department and trying to correct it,” Commissioner George Pretz said. “I think we need to go for a countywide study.”
Commissioner Danny Gallagher nodded. “I 100 percent agree.”
Roberts also agreed the focus needs to be on the county’s more than 200 employees.
“If we really have a salary problem, then we need to figure out how to solve that problem,” he said.
Commission Chair Phil Dixon and County Administrator Shane Krull provided other instances where the Road and Bridge and Emergency Medical Services departments have had trouble finding and retaining employees.
Krull cited a recent example presented by the county’s EMS Chief David Ediger who said he had three EMT openings and only one applicant. While that candidate was qualified for the position, the person wasn’t a viable choice because of three driving-under-the-influence violations.
Krull suggested commissioners might want to look at contracting an outside consulting firm to perform a classification and salary study at some future point.
“I think it’s a reasonable expectation of the governing body to have a compensation strategy that is competitive in the marketplace — that our management principles and efforts are fair to the folks that work here … where they are properly classified for the employment that we ask them to do and they are compensated fairly for that and managed fairly for that.
Franklin County utilized an outside consultant to perform a similar study a few years ago and implemented the recommendations over a three-year period, Krull said.
“I think the reality is we are influenced by the folks up north,” Krull said.
Roberts said one of the county’s strengths is that it has a defined pay structure for all county employees.
Commissioner Tyler Vaughan didn’t have an issue with a defined pay structure, but he also said he didn’t think there was anything wrong with developing an incentive program to try and retain good talent.
“If we continue to do the same (approach), we’ll get the same results,” Vaughan said. “I think we need to look at different ideas.”
Minckley acknowledged the needs of other departments and that the county commissioners have to look at all options. But he said the solution needs to come sooner than later.
“About 75 percent of our staff is under five years of service,” Minckley said.
Perhaps doing a bit of foreshadowing, Minckley referenced the 2021 budget in early July before he received word a couple of weeks later that the County Commission had not included the department’s proposed salary step plan in its 2020 budget.
“If they give me another year to think about it, going into the 2021 budget season, I’ll go back to the drawing board and we’ll try again. But we’ll be another year behind the curve,” Minckley said. “I believe if we have competitive wages, then the pendulum is going to swing back and we are going to be able to retain some employees.”