Sheriff's office facing `exodus'

Nearly one-fourth of deputy jobs are open

`Nobody is coming'

Many leaving for higher salaries at other agencies

August 22, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

With nearly one-fourth of its deputy jobs vacant - and more deputies planning to leave soon for higher-paying jobs - the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Office is struggling to fill vacancies and retain its uniformed employees.

"There is a mass exodus, and nobody is coming to fill the positions," said Robert Disney-Coker, a union representative for the Teamsters Local 355 that represents the deputies.

Of 58 deputy positions, 14 were vacant as of Friday. Four more deputies are expected to quit soon and several more are likely to leave before the year is out.

Among those leaving are the handlers of the two bomb-sniffing security dogs.

Some deputies are bound for the county police and fire departments, both of which have higher pay scales.

Under a three-year contract that took effect last month, starting pay for deputies jumped from $29,000 to $33,000. But that is $6,000 less than the county police starting salary. Officers in both agencies must have the same law enforcement credentials.

Pacer Luckhardt, a six-year deputy, said that until he received a raise to $37,000 under the new contract, he was eligible for food stamps. He and his wife have three young children.

Deputies are trained law-enforcement personnel, with duties distinct from police. They provide security for the Anne Arundel County Court House, serve almost all Circuit and District Court paperwork, handle evictions, deliver child support summonses and domestic violence court papers, and serve warrants and arrest people.

But David Belisle, a deputy and shop steward for the Teamsters local, said enticing younger people to careers with the sheriff's office has become difficult because other nearby agencies have substantially better salary and benefits packages.

Only three deputies have been there less than five years, though many more have gone through what seems like a revolving door to higher-paying jobs. Getting them to stay is just as tough, because they see the salary gap between themselves and officers in other law enforcement agencies widening annually. Deputies can retire at age 50 with five years on the job.

Belisle and other deputies said turnover, number of vacancies, low pay and the need to work overtime is devastating to morale.

Sometimes, only one deputy is available to staff a courtroom where a judge is hearing criminal matters, though optimal security calls for two. Supervisors fill in on parts of deputy shifts. Overtime pay is running well ahead of where it was at this time last year.

The county and the Sheriff's Department are working out a recruitment plan, said Tricia Hopkins, assistant personnel officer for the county.

Recent efforts include recruiting at community colleges, such as those in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, that have law enforcement certification programs from which graduates must be hired above the minimum starting pay, said Sheriff George F. Johnson IV.

Three hires this year have transferred from other departments. A fourth is in the county's police academy. Four or five more people who are law enforcement certified are under consideration, Johnson said.

Johnson said he is trying to work with county personnel officers, who he said have not fully understood the impact of the low salary until the recent exodus.

For years, the department has operated below its allotted staffing level. Hiring efforts in recent years typically netted few results.

"If it means that we have got to change our philosophies or bring in people at higher salaries, or pay people more, then we are going to have to do it," Johnson said.

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