Editorial: Pay hikes of the past come back to haunt county

Published: Thursday, Jun. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 13, 2013 - 12:12 am

It was a familiar refrain. If Sacramento County were to cut his budget by the $10 million initially proposed, Sheriff Scott Jones warned that he would be forced to cut already dangerously thin deputy patrols.

Even though County Executive Brad Hudson disputed Jones' claims, Sacramento County supervisors relented. Always reluctant to cross swords with an elected sheriff and the influential deputy sheriffs union, the supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to cut $3 million in funding for criminal rehabilitation and aid to the poor and shift that money to the Sheriff's Department instead.

Supervisors also sought to blame the governor's realignment plan, which shifts low-level offenders from state prison to county jails, for budget shortfalls in the Sheriff's Department. The state, Jones and supervisors complained, hasn't provided enough resources to counties to adequately fund realignment.

There may be some truth to this, but let's be honest. The responsibility for money woes within the Sheriff's Department rests with the supervisors themselves. They have approved overly generous pay raises for deputies that the county can't afford.

Next year's scheduled pay hike of 4.5 percent comes on top of compensation enhancements for deputies of more than 30 percent over the last five years. The salary increases deputies are scheduled to receive next year will cost the county $10.7 million, an amount which more than covers the deficit the sheriff faces.

According to figures provided by the county, the pay rates for the average (Step 7) deputy – including salary, incentives, uniform allowance and holiday pay – have increased from $73,097 in 2008 to $91,527 this year, up 25 percent. Benefits, including retirement and medical insurance, jumped by $22,000, a 40 percent increase during that same period. Salary and benefits combined have boosted deputy compensation from $128,331 to $168,989. The cost of a top-step deputy has ballooned to $200,306 annually, not counting overtime.

These hefty pay raises for deputies have come in the midst of the deepest recession since the Great Depression. They have come as the county has tried to hold the line on salaries for its other employees. They come at a time when the county workforce has been cut by 25 percent and most of those who remained – not deputies, of course – were forced to accept furloughs ranging between eight and 16 days in 2009 and 2010.

In a recent survey of 16 jurisdictions, the city of Rancho Cordova found that Sacramento County deputies were the highest paid law enforcement officers in the region.

Sheriff Jones and board Chairwoman Susan Peters point out that the Deputy Sheriffs' Association has stepped up in recent years to help the county meet its budget challenges by agreeing to a number of concessions. The union agreed to allow the sheriff to use less-expensive retired deputies or part-time officers to staff the jail, transport prisoners and provide court security. Deputies also now pick up the full employee share of their retirement costs. Even now, Jones reports that the union is considering cutting part of next year's scheduled 4.5 percent pay hike to save the county an additional $5 million.

In addition, some compensation for deputies is beyond the current board's control. Lavish retirement benefits approved a decade ago have saddled the county with pension costs that have exploded and are expected to continue to grow for many years to come.

Still, in the depths of the recession, as other county workers were laid off or had their pay cut, supervisors ladled out big raises to deputies that the county simply cannot afford. And that's why patrols are at risk, not realignment.

The extraordinarily fast-paced budget debate before the Board of Supervisors this week offered little or no opportunity for the public to understand, much less weigh in on, spending decisions. Before the board takes its final budget vote in September, the public deserves both more time and more precise information, especially about deputy pay.

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