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Sheriff, DA join in criticism of county law enforcement funding

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke addresses the board of supervisors on Tuesday, April 25, 2016, imploring the board to put more money into law enforcement agencies.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke addresses the board of supervisors on Tuesday, April 25, 2016, imploring the board to put more money into law enforcement agencies. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Calling gang violence a “public safety crisis,” Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II teamed up with Sheriff Vern Warnke on Tuesday to criticize the Board of Supervisors for its failure to stem the crime wave or improve pay for the short-staffed Sheriff’s Office.

Morse approached the board with the same message in recent years. The supervisors, he said, did not respond to his previous pleas for help to combat gang violence.

“In the three years since I challenged this board to get engaged in the public safety battle, especially concerning gangs, only one member of the board has even contacted me to suggest ways to generate more revenue to fight gangs,” Morse said.

“Frankly, it’s been a deafening silence from the third floor,” Morse said, referring to the location of the board’s chambers in the county administration building on M Street.

Morse and Warnke shared statistics on homicide rates in Merced County over the past five years, which hit a record high of 32 in 2014. That gave the county the state’s highest homicide rate per 100,000 people, according to state Justice Department statistics.

Morse stressed that staffing shortages in the Sheriff’s Office have kept it from fully participating in gang task forces.

For the past year, the Merced County Deputy Sheriff’s Association has been in negotiations with the county seeking a wage raise for deputies, who reportedly are leaving for other agencies with better pay.

“We need to invest in the skin part of this,” Warnke told the board. “We need to invest in the blood, sweat and tears (of the people) wearing the uniforms, and make them feel appreciated and make them want to stay.”

Board Chairman Hub Walsh, District 2 supervisor, noted that more than half the county’s budget is devoted to public safety and the county in recent years has made large investments in equipment and projects for the Sheriff’s Office.

Walsh also recommended reintroducing a public safety committee.

The sheriff and district attorney said they were unaware such a group exists.

District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo said later in the meeting that the committee is assembled and meets at the request of department heads. Pedrozo said he and District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey were members of the committee, which also includes fire officials.

Jerry O’Banion, District 5 supervisor, said the board is trying to do whatever it can to help.

“The Sheriff’s Office was increased by at least four positions,” O’Banion said. “It’s not our fault you can’t get those positions filled.”

From the 2013-14 budget to the current year’s budget, the DA’s office and the Sheriff’s Office requested 10 more positions. The Board of Supervisors approved 27 additional positions for the two offices.

But Warnke said he’s had trouble recruiting to fill the new positions because the pay and benefits are not competitive with neighboring agencies.

The county’s proposal in March to the Deputy Sheriff’s Association included a 7 percent raise over two years contingent on capping health benefits, which the union saw as a decrease in take-home pay, Phil Brooks, the association’s president, said at the time.

O’Banion agreed deputies are important, but said he values every county employee.

“They’ve all gone through some of the same struggles or worse struggles that some of these other safety folks have in the past,” he said. “Some of the 24-hour services didn’t take cuts when the other employees did.”

Andy Krotik, the government affairs director for the Merced County Association of Realtors, said that when the association’s members show properties, clients search the Internet for Merced and see the crime statistics.

“It’s embarrassing to have to deal with the panhandlers and the murder rates when you’re working as a Realtor,” he said.

Krotik said the Board of Supervisors has moved fast to tackle other issues, such as the groundwater management ordinance and road tax.

“The appearance is that you’re not taking this (crime) as an emergency situation,” he said.

Walsh asked the county’s staff to compile information on how the board has supported law enforcement in recent years and promised to include Morse and Warnke in future public safety committee discussions.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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