MERCED -- The Merced County Sheriff's Department is battling an overtime problem -- about $650,000 worth in a year -- with its jail's correctional staff that's handcuffing patrol and taking deputies off the streets.
Complicating the issue, a clause in the correctional officers' union contract prevents sheriff's management from relieving officers of the excessive overtime and using a cheaper alternative.
However, a spokesman from the Merced County Sheriff's Employee Association, the union that represents correctional officers, says the clause isn't the problem -- management's decision to lay off more than a dozen part-time correctional officers last year is to blame.
Last month, the Merced County Board of Supervisors approved more than $1 million in budget transfers to reconcile overdrawn accounts within the sheriff's department. A majority of that money was the result of correctional officers' overtime, said sheriff's Sgt. Scott Dover. The transferred money came from the sheriff's operations budget, which is used for patrol functions.
"Basically, in reference to everything except corrections, we reduced overtime across the board considerably," Dover said, citing changes to the schedules of patrol deputies that have cut back on excess hours.
But correctional layoffs in July 2011 triggered a "no displacement" clause in the county's memorandum of understanding with MCSEA, preventing the county from bringing in other workers at a lower rate to do the job of correctional officers.
That clause has resulted in correctional officers doing extra work that used to be handled by lower-paid reserve deputies, Dover said. Simple but time-consuming tasks such as inmate transportation, video arraignments and hospital visits are major reasons for the extra hours.
Those tasks alone racked up to $650,000 in correctional officer overtime during the last fiscal year.
"A reserve deputy, we pay them somewhere between $10 and $16 an hour," Dover said, noting that overtime wages for correctional officers average $48 an hour.
Negotiations with MCSEA to remove the clause from its contract have been stagnant.
"We've tried to talk to the association, MCSEA, about moving forward with allowing us to use reserves or lower-paid people to handle these, and at this point we haven't come to an agreement," Dover said.
Negotiations are coming to an end, but haven't been confirmed.
Since last year's layoffs, "a dramatic" increase in sick leave hours used and workers' compensation claims also has put a strain on the sheriff's budget, Dover said.
Jeff Miller, a correctional officer and spokesman for MCSEA, said the excessive sick leave and workers' compensation claims are a direct result of the overtime that's creating a workforce of "zombies."
"They're working themselves sick, they're getting injured," Miller said. "How would you like to have somebody on your 15th hour, some 6-foot-2, 200 pounder, come over and kick your butt? How good are your reflexes? How good is your critical thinking? How fast are you?"
Whether or not it's in the contract, Miller said, displacing officers is illegal. Furthermore, he said reserve deputies don't have the same level of training that part-time correctional staff does.
"They have absolutely no training," Miller said. "They didn't know the doors, they didn't know the keys, they didn't know where to take (the inmates), they didn't know the cells -- they knew nothing."
The quickest solution to quell the overtime problem would be to bring back at least 10 of the part-time correctional officers who were laid off last year, Miller said, adding that the part-timers get the same wages as reserve deputies.
"If the part-timers were here, there'd be no issue," said Miller, who noted that he's working about 24 hours of overtime every week. "Why bring in untrained reserves when we have trained, legally qualified people sitting at home who (would) get the same pay?" Miller asked.
Until a resolution is found, department overtime is expected to continue posing a challenge for management.
Mike Harris, a sheriff's detective who's also president of the Merced County Deputy Sheriff's Association, said the extra overtime coming from corrections has taken deputies off the streets, creating safety concerns for law enforcement and the public.
"The DSA supports the most economic use of resources," Harris said. "We're all in this together."
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or email@example.com.