Merced County Sheriff's deputies will receive a long-awaited 10 percent raise on Monday after a deal was approved on Tuesday by the Merced County Board of Supervisors.
The raise was approved unanimously by supervisors and came before the county's final budget hearing. The raises total more than $1 million and come in part from the county's general fund and a special funding source in the sheriff's budget previously used for equipment updates.
Sheriff Vern Warnke said already deputies who previously left to work at other agencies have reached out to him about returning to Merced County.
"It's already having a positive impact in my department. ... I'm so glad and grateful we were able to take care of business,” Warnke said.
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Warnke for years has pleaded with the board for higher wages for his deputies as his department faced serious recruitment and retention issues. Although raises were granted to deputies through the negotiation process with the union, vacancies at the department continued to rise. A Sun-Star analysis earlier this year found Merced County deputies still remained among the lowest paid in the San Joaquin Valley.
Before the vote, Supervisor Lee Lor inquired about other challenges in the department and questioned whether the raise was the right answer to the department's recruitment and retention struggles.
"In speaking to former employees, they stated salaries were actually not the No. 1 reason they left, " Lor said. "So with that, I can only assume that, aside from salary, there are some internal challenges that might be there that the public might not be aware of."
The sheriff said other complaints employees may have had, such as long hours, overtime, and mandatory shifts, stem from the low pay and vacancy issue.
"Those will go away when we get the bodies," he said. "When you're 16 deputies down, that has a tendency to make those that are still here work a little harder, and sometimes that's frustrating. This was the crux of it. This was the main cause of that issue.
"It's a domino effect. What you may be seeing is the fifth domino," he said. "The first domino is the pay."
The raise comes before the county has completed a countywide compensation study. Lor said she believed the decision should have waited until after the study was complete, but her vote was based on what she heard from residents.
Supervisor Lloyd Pareira called the raises "unprecedented," noting that in the future he hopes the board won't need to take such action.
"This is a need, not a want," he said. "I hope this is a step that will fill that need and that our citizens feel safer."
Charlene Borrelli, a Hilmar resident who helps coordinate the Hilmar Farm Watch, expressed her appreciation to the sheriff, CEO Jim Brown and supervisors for working together to find a way to solve the problem.
"This is significant. It's something that we’ve needed for a while," she told the Sun-Star. " I do feel it will help increase numbers with the deputies. We're in dire need for more deputies. It’s the first step toward a safer county."
County staff pointed back to the raises during the final budget hearing, where public safety remained a priority. About 53 percent of the county's 2017-18 budget is dedicated to public safety and the justice system.
Health and human services make up another 30 percent, while support services and capital improvement projects made up 13 percent and municipal and countywide services accounted for 4 percent.
The $633.1 million budget included money to pad the county's reserve fund nearly to the level it was in 2008-09 before the recession hit. More than forty staff positions were added, though many were in health and human services and funded by state and federal programs.
CEO Jim Brown said it's important the county positions itself for future economic downturns as sales tax growth staggers and long-term water availability for agriculture is uncertain.