Merced County sheriff’s deputies are among the lowest paid in the San Joaquin Valley while Merced’s Board of Supervisors are among the highest paid, according to data analyzed by the Sun-Star.
Merced’s deputies rank third from the bottom in base pay with only Kern and Kings counties making less. Merced’s supervisors, on the other hand, take home more money than other boards that oversee larger populations, such as Stanislaus and Tulare counties.
Similarly, Merced County’s CEO, Jim Brown, is the second-highest paid county administrator in the Valley, with only San Joaquin County’s administrator making more.
The debate over take-home pay has been ongoing for several years in Merced County but recently surfaced again when Sheriff Vern Warnke pleaded with the Board of Supervisors to put more money into his deputies’ wallets in an effort to stem the tide of deputies leaving the department.
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“We have not hired any deputy sheriff at Step I of the salary range because we can’t get anyone to come here at that range,” said Richard St. Marie, the administrative officer for the sheriff’s office. “They come here at Step III in an attempt to compete with all the other agencies. When we have other agencies still offering a better retirement package than we offer for new employees, that’s a big draw.”
Tensions rose again last month when Brown responded that pay was not the only obstacle affecting the sheriff’s ability to retain and hire staff. Brown said at least part of the problem could be attributed to the younger generation’s disinterest in law enforcement careers and that, nationally, law enforcement’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years.
Brown did not respond to requests for comment.
The issue likely won’t go away anytime soon after a report published on Friday by the Merced County Grand Jury recommended higher pay for deputies. The report noted Merced County’s high crime rates and low deputy pay compared to neighboring counties and the lack of a special gang unit.
The grand jury recommended negotiating with the union to restructure the compensation package for deputies and increasing staffing.
The county responded to the report, noting a recent agreement with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association that includes raises and has added nearly 30 positions to the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices.
It’s complicated, but both sides agree there’s a problem that needs to be solved quickly, especially given a recent spike in violent crime that included three homicides in Merced County in less than a month.
“Collectively, we agree there’s a staffing deficit that plagues the sheriff’s office,” Sgt. Delray Shelton said. “The question is, what are we collectively going to do to rectify the issue?”
Shelton called for the sheriff’s office administration and county officials to put aside personal feelings and politics to solve a far-reaching issue.
“The deficit has created a substantial amount of other issues within the organization, such as physically and emotionally fatigued employees, officer safety issues, substandard work quality, morale and production,” he said. “Additionally, many employees’ personal and home lives have been affected in an array of negative ways. Sadly, the lack of service to the community is being affected on all levels, when it doesn’t have to be.”
And while it’s not just about money, for some deputies who recently departed the department, including Ruben Orozco, pay was the deciding factor.
Orozco, born and raised in Merced, left his post as a sheriff’s detective in 2015 when the county recorded 30 homicides.
“If it wasn’t for the pay, I’d probably still be there,” he said. “My kids were getting older. It was going to be time to start saving money for college. With Merced County Sheriff’s Office, even though the cost of living (in Merced) was low, for the amount of work we do, it was hard to survive.”
In his new job in the Bay Area, Orozco said the overall work environment is better. “We deal more with property crimes,” Orozco said. “Because we don’t deal with all that other stuff, obviously we deal with less stress. And, it’s for more money.”
Phil Brooks, president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said people forget the board recently approved raises for deputy sheriffs, deputy coroners and dispatchers. The DSA in August 2016 entered a three-year contract with Merced County that included a 10 percent base pay increase for deputies. Dispatchers and sheriff coroners received a seven percent pay increase.
But, deputies and dispatchers continue to leave Merced County.
“I don’t think anyone knows for sure whether people are leaving just for money,” Brooks said. “The sheriff’s department needs to get creative and change how they do business. That’s the million-dollar question the sheriff’s administration needs to be answering.”
In just under one year, 13 deputy sheriffs left Merced County, Brooks said. The department has more than a dozen vacancies.
Brooks said he believes, in general, all law enforcement officers deserve raises, and he supports the sheriff’s effort to win raises for deputies. But, Brooks also said he supports the negotiation process, and the DSA membership voted heavily in favor of the current contract. Half the deputy sheriffs participated in the voting process, and 68 percent of those voted in favor of the contract, he said.
Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza noted the supervisors can’t control their own pay, and the new board has not formally discussed Brown’s contract or the DSA’s contract.
“I would be happy to entertain an extra increase (for deputies),” he said. “We do need to retain our officers. I am tired of seeing Merced County being a training ground.”
The county also is in the process of conducting a compensation study to measure equity between departments. Espinoza said that will help determine deputy pay moving forward.
“I’m only one person and can only speak for myself,” he said. “I’m not speaking for the rest of the supervisors, and I don’t know where they’re at. Crime is very high in our county, and I want to make our county safe.”
Supervisor Lloyd Pareira said agriculture crimes and petty theft are “way up” in his district. But, he’s waiting for county staff to return to the board with a compensation study comparing similar counties before making any determination on the issue.
“We’re working on it,” he said. “If we’re going to do something, let’s do what’s warranted.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477
By the numbers
The chart below compares entry-level base salary rates for sheriff’s deputies and base pay for county supervisors and county executives or administrators throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
* The Stanislaus County CEO pay is effective Aug. 12 when a new contract begins.
** Information gathered from county human resources departments