Merced County residents in unincorporated communities plagued by frequent reports of gang activity will soon have four additional deputy sheriffs patrolling their streets.
The Board of Supervisors this week approved adding four deputy sheriff-coroner positions to the Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff’s 2014-15 budget included $350,000 for the four positions; salary and benefit costs will run $170,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year, according to county records.
Sheriff Vern Warnke said the push for the new positions began in former Sheriff Tom Cavallero’s administration. The deputies will assist with patrol, he said, but will target areas that have a strong gang influence.
“There are small groups of people that are terrorizing our community, and we’re taking it back,” Warnke said Thursday. “We’re hitting them hard and heavy.”
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The Sheriff’s Department has two deputies on the county’s Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, a coalition of public safety officials formed to combat gang problems. Warnke said the Sheriff’s Department was on the verge of pulling out because of staffing challenges.
“But they brought to my attention all the stuff that’s going on, and I decided we need to keep this going,” Warnke said.
Even with the four new deputies on the job, the Sheriff’s Department is still understaffed by 13 positions, Warnke said. The department currently has 96 deputies.
While the department deals with tight budgets and staffing challenges, a union leader said a recent Merced Sun-Star article about Cavallero’s $183,211 pension compelled him to “set the record straight” about the retirement packages of line officers and other sheriff’s personnel.
“I was disappointed to find out that one of our own (another public servant), will retire on more than three times what the average deputy sheriff earns, serving every day,” said Deputy Sheriff’s Association President Phil Brooks in a news release. “One could easily see how the general public has developed a negative perception of public workers and the retirements that they receive.”
A top-level dispatcher earns $49,500 a year, a deputy sheriff, $68,000, and a deputy coroner about $48,000, Brooks said. Prior to 2012, a deputy sheriff with 30 years of service could expect to receive a $58,000 annual pension; now it ranges from $39,000 to $51,000 because of concessions, he said, a “far cry” from Cavallero’s six-figure pension.
Brooks said his members don’t receive car or cellphone allowances that can be used to boost pension compensation. Cavallero increased his pension by collecting a $700 monthly car allowance for a year.
In an interview with the Sun-Star on Thursday, Brooks said his intent was not to criticize Cavallero or former Sheriff Mark Pazin, who takes home nearly $200,000 a year in retirement.
“This is not in any way a personal attack against the two sheriffs,” he said. “They are a product of the pension system. But we hear about the tough financial situation the county is in, then we hear about someone getting $200,000 for not doing anything. It’s troubling as a citizen.”
Warnke said he understands Brooks’ frustration, but the sheriff’s salary, benefits and pension packages are set figures, not something that can be negotiated.
However, Warnke agreed that Merced County’s deputies, dispatchers and coroners are underpaid compared with their counterparts at other law enforcement agencies. He plans to fight for raises in the next round of negotiations.
“They’re frustrated at the low pay, and I don’t blame them for that,” Warnke said. “They can go across the street to make $1,500 or $2,000 more a month immediately, so we’ve got to get them more money and better benefits. As their sheriff, I’m going to talk to the Board of Supervisors to see if there is a way we can negotiate raises into the budgets.”