By David Hurst
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
SOMERSET, Pa. — A year ago, Somerset County Acting Sheriff Dustin Weir said he had 10 deputies transporting inmates, serving court documents and guarding the county courthouse.
In January, it will often be as low as four.
The issue frustrating Weir is forcing the Somerset County court system to make at least one adjustment next month.
Presiding Judge D. Gregory Geary confirmed Wednesday that he would space out the Court of Motions schedule so that deputies are not needed to protect multiple courtrooms at the same time.
“Currently, Judge (Scott) Bittner and I have a motions court concurrently, which requires deputies to bring defendants into two courtrooms from jail at the same time,” Geary said, noting that it takes several deputies for each courtroom.
“With the situation Sheriff Weir is facing…I told him I always wanted to be flexible and adapt to changing conditions, like this.”
Weir said the move “takes the pressure off.”
But he is still worried about next year.
‘At the front door’
It takes two deputies to transport an inmate from the nearby jail, Weir said. The same number is assigned to the courts when criminal proceedings are ongoing.
It doesn’t happen every day, but other tasks do, particularly staffing the security “sweep” system that greets courthouse guests as they walk through the main doors each day, a he declared.
“People are checking their guns,” Weir said. “It’s nothing to us that people hand us pocket knives every day.”
Without more staff, he said he didn’t know how his deputies could outfit the scanner and carry out other duties when court is in session.
Geary described main entrance security as “our top priority”.
And he said he informed Weir that the county would do whatever it takes to ensure the security scan continues, noting that this step better protects the rest of the courthouse inside.
“Ultimately, the presiding judge is responsible for security in the courthouse,” he said. “If that happens, I will sacrifice security in my own courtroom to make sure we have someone at the front door.”
Geary said he will also continue to work with Weir and the rest of the Courts team to ensure the system remains flexible to accommodate the sheriff’s office staffing limitations.
The judge said he was considering contingency plans to deal with emergency staffing situations if the total number of deputies fell below four – which he hopes will not happen.
“We have to make sure there’s a capable person (posted) at the front door,” Geary said.
Rate of pay, training
Weir said he currently averages six deputies per typical day – thanks to a mix of full-time and part-time officers.
One deputy will retire in the next two weeks and another will move to another position, bringing the number to four from January 6, he said.
“The other (outgoing deputy) has reached his year of employment and now he should be attending the sheriff’s deputy training academy,” he said of the program which requires trainees to spend 19 weeks training in Harrisburg. “He decided to move on instead.”
Weir said the young assistant wasn’t the first to decide to pursue another job rather than complete 760 hours of training for a job that starts at $11.92 an hour.
After the Somerset County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Weir expressed concern that salaries have become a barrier to recruiting and retaining staff.
“We currently have three full-time and one part-time vacant slots,” Weir said. “But it’s hard to bring someone in when they can make $18 somewhere else with a municipal service.
“The salary,” he added. “We have to do something about it.”
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Pay for Somerset County’s entry-level deputies appears to lag behind other sixth-grade counties in the region – the statewide classification for those with 45,000 to 89,999 residents.
Bedford County Sheriff’s Office officials told The Tribune-Democrat that a deputy’s starting salary was $13.50 an hour and that negotiations were underway to review union wages.
Indiana County pays $18.84 for full-time entry-level assistants and $21.47 for part-time staff.
Somerset County Chairman Commissioner Gerald Walker said the starting salary is a matter of contract.
And negotiations over the MPs’ union AFSCME contract will not take place until the end of next year when the deal expires, he said.
“The last time we negotiated with them, starting salary wasn’t something they were concerned about” at the bargaining table, Walker said.
That can be reconsidered during negotiations, but Walker and his fellow commissioners argue that salary is only part of the equation.
A national trend
Counties across the state and nation are grappling with shortages in their sheriff’s departments and other law enforcement departments.
In Lancaster County, a persistent 25% vacancy rate forced county commissioners in May into a temporary deal with an outside detective agency to handle some department duties. An incentive package, including a $12,000 retention bonus, was also approved to allow the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office to rebuild its workforce in the interim, Lancaster Online reported at the time.
In California, the Palo Alto County Sheriff announced plans to close two of his court buildings due to staffing shortages – before the county presiding judge blocked the effort and addressed the issue by changing the schedule.
For a variety of reasons — including the stress of law enforcement jobs — the number of people being trained or seeking to work in policing is not what it was 15 years ago, Walker said.
“And we have to think outside the box” to solve the problem, Walker said.
Beyond posting adverts looking for new MPs, Somerset commissioners say they want to continue working with Weir to reverse the general trend.
Walker said the county has been exploring the idea of developing a deputy “career path” through Pennsylvania Highlands Community College’s municipal police training program.
“We need to develop our own talent pool here in Somerset County,” Walker said.
Weir said the cadets would help, but it would likely be short-term support.
After a year at the courthouse, most would likely seek work elsewhere for better-paying jobs, he said.
The commissioners said they saw the situation differently — and that the salary alone did not take into account county benefits, health care coverage and weekends off.
These benefits are part of the speech they plan to deliver to the upcoming Penn Highlands Academy class, commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said.
“It’s going to take a number of methods to solve this problem,” she said. “There will not be an overnight solution to this problem.”
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