EL DORADO – Shane Koranda went before the Towanda City Council earlier this month to discuss illegal activity happening in his neighborhood on 10th St., and in the process he revealed a startling truth. It’s the truth that Butler County Sheriff’s department is having trouble retaining officers.
The issues lie mostly on the detention side of the department, where unfilled positions account for 30 percent of the detention department’s workforce within the county jail. For road patrol, the problem isn’t so much finding people to fill the positions, as turnover and the lag created to train new deputies to cover county roads or fill policing contracts. The department had a .56 turnover rate for the last year on the patrol side, according to employment records. All positions are currently filled with two officers completing training.
Currently Butler County starts deputies and patrol officers at $14.70. After they graduate from the academy they make $15.07, according to an in house pay study presented at the July 13 county commission meeting by Sheriff Kelly Herzet, undersheriff Tony Wilhite and Sergeant Jay Sharp. This starting pay is $.05 less than the City of El Dorado, and less than any surrounding municipalities with a police department or Sedgwick County Sheriffs Department by anywhere from $1.30 to nearly $4.00.
“This is our top complaint,” Herzet said. “It’s not administration. It’s not work conditions. It’s pay. We do a good job providing training and equipment, but that doesn’t outweigh that you can go anywhere in the county and make more.
“You would think the chief law enforcement agency in the county would have the highest pay rate, or one of the highest. The majority of people here aren’t leaving because they’re disgruntled with the work, the go on to continue working in law enforcement; it’s the money.”
It’s been 11 years since the county has done a salary study, and the lack of competitive wages is keeping many qualified applicants away, and leading to resignations within the department.
Just last month two patrol officers resigned from the county. Both told Herzet that the sole reason they were leaving was due to lack of pay. One of those officers was the fourth man in the contract for the City of Towanda. The other patrolled Douglass. An attempt to reach the officers through the city of Bel Aire was denied due to the cities’ policy of recusing themselves from political matters.
“It wasn’t work conditions,” Herzet said. “It was pay, and I can’t blame them for that.”
It would be hard for residents to see the direct impact turnover is costing them. Although according to Herzet’s pay study, the county pays $17,673.33 and half a year to train newly hired officers. This includes equipping the new officer and sending him or her through training. If they have prior experience that number is considerably less, but experienced officers aren’t applying for the open positions due to lack of pay. Herzet said that a call has never been unanswered in the county, and response times have not on average been affected. In instances where a sheriff is more than a few minutes away from a call, the closest local police department will send an officer until someone from the sheriff’s department gets on scene.
“If we have someone at training then occasionally the Sergeant or Lieutenant takes calls,” Herzet said. “This is a big county and it takes time to get to places. We have a great working relationship with local police departments and if we have an incident where it’s quicker for them to respond then we ask if local police can spare and send an officer. We also back them up if they need help. We have local assist every agency within the county and in turn they do the same. It’s all about having a great working relationship.”
However, for Koranda when he called the non-emergency sheriff’s number to report suspicious activity in his Towanda neighborhood, he was told the responding officer was anywhere from Elbing to Rose Hill. He was frustrated by that, especially when the City of Towanda has a contract for 24-hour police coverage that has not been fully filled for months. He and several neighbors commented at the council meeting they would be willing to pay a tax increase for 24-hour protection. The Council was also frustrated by the lack of policing. Mayor Jennifer Shaults said she is often frustrated the city’s contract is not filled regularly.
There are three policing contracts throughout the county; Towanda, Douglass and Potwin/Whitewater. Douglass was down to one officer to fill a three-person contract, but will be back to full contract status this month as two officers finish training. When contracts aren’t filled, cities are billed only for coverage they receive. And for empty shifts, officers working within that cites’ beat rotate through the town on a more regular basis to provide coverage.
This leaves some holes in coverage, which were a concern for Towanda Council member Mike Hayes at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting. He came before the commission as a private citizen to raise concerns of retention within the sheriff’s department. He cited the cost it takes to train newly hired officers is staggering, but also that he is concerned with safety issues that might arise if criminals found out where the holes in coverage were.
“This has been a political football throughout this election process and it should not be in the sheriff’s race,” Hayes said. “It should rest in the playing field of the county commission because our contract is with the commission with the sheriff assigned to manage the contract.”
He urged commission members to look at a pay increase to not only get qualified applicants, but to retain deputies already employed. It’s the same request Herzet said he has been making every budget year since taking office. Hayes who keeps close tabs on the commissioners’ decisions regarding public safety due to his background as a former Sedgwick County Sheriff’s officer said that usually the commission is divided on the pay increase with the same members voting in favor or against each time.
“We have the same problem in Douglass,” commissioner Dan Woydziak said. “I totally agree with what you’re saying. This is why the commission needs people here to talk when we talk about the budget. We’ve set a budget for this year, and we need to do something because we can’t keep spending $250,000 every four years for retention training.”
Commissioner Ed Myers who’s district covers Towanda said that other than Hayes, no one has contacted him regarding this issue with the sheriff’s department.
“Obviously law enforcement and safety is an serious issue,” Myers said. “Until we hear from more people concerning this issue… it concerns me too. Mike (Hayes) started raising awareness. We need to make sure people have adequate policing.”
In Herzet’s July presentation he stated that the department had lost 24 certified officers since 2013. Nine left to work within other agencies within the county, 15 left for jobs outside the county, changed careers or retired. The loss of those officers he estimated between equipment and training cost taxpayers around $424,200. If one adds the $35,346 from the most recent two resignations the county has spent nearly a half a million dollars due to turnover since 2013.
In the five counties Herzet compared earlier this year (Butler, Saline, Reno, Leavenworth, Riley) that were equivalent in both size and population, the starting wage for an uncertified officer was at least a dollar less. Most of the compared counties start their lowest ranking certified officer less than detectives or sergeants in Butler County. Reno, which was the closest in both size and population started their officers out at $16.87, two dollars more than Butler County. In most cases patrol officers or deputies across the state make on average between $16.98 and $26.51 depending on training and length of service. That’s 13 to 25 percent more than Butler County. For more experienced Butler County officers that percentage is anywhere from 16 to 25 percent.
“We’re trying to make it better,” Herzet said. “Every year we go before the commissioners and try and get the pay up. There’s a simple line I like to use, ‘Skilled labor does not come cheap and cheap labor rarely comes skilled.’”
This is an issue that is not going away anytime soon for county commissioners. Retention is on the agenda for the Nov. 8 meeting. Both the sheriff’s department and corrections department will each discuss specific issues lack of retention is causing them.
Detention Center Issues
It just so happened that Captain of the Detention Facilities Erik Ramsey was also scheduled to speak to commissioners Tuesday. After hearing that retention rates were so low at the jail commissioners looked to seek clarification.
There are currently 17 open positions at the jail, which fully staffed employees 50 people. Two more people will have limited work duties by the end of the month due to health reasons putting the jail further short staffed.
To fill positions, patrol officers due one shift a month in the jail.
“We have three people with offers for employment but it’s a slow process,” Ramsey said. “From January 16 we’ve received 159 applicants and 137 were disqualified throughout the employment process with 99 people not even showing up for the testing.”
To be hired applicants must pass a entrance exam, a background test, an physical test and a polygraph test. Ramsey said he is unsure why so many people apply then don’t take the tests. He believes a reason might be people are using the application to show different government agencies they’re applying for jobs to maintain assistance or unemployment.
“The Jail has a certain amount of turnover because not everyone is a fit for the job,” Herzet said. “Their retention issues are completely different than ours on patrol.”
Herzet said in the five years he’s been sheriff and the two he’s been undersheriff, the jail has always been short staffed.
“We might get down to as low as seven empty spots, but we’ve never been fully staffed,” Herzet said. “It’s mostly due to money. There’s not way to change the work conditions, but pay would certainly help retain. We’re competing with Sedgwick County, Wichita and our own municipalities. They go where the money’s at.”
The shift in mentality between generations is a reason Herzet thinks people are leaving and it’s a problem he said sheriff’s across the county are feeling after going on a charity pheasant shoot last weekend in South Dakota with 99 other sheriffs across the county.
“Everyone’s dealing with this issue it’s not just us,” Herzet said. “It upsets me there isn’t more loyalty but I can’t blame them for wanting to make more. School districts are having a hard time finding bus drivers, same with fast food workings. People don’t want to work.”
With as under the microscope as law enforcement jobs have become as of late, Herzet says that the pay gap will only create bigger retention problems down the line, especially in the jail.