A Seward County Sheriff’s Department officer and another emergency personel work the scene of a ditch fire earlier this year. The Seward County Commission heard a proposal Monday evening regarding wage increases for staff. Courtesy photo

ROBERT PIERCE

    • Leader & Times

 

In an effort to remain competitive in a tight labor market, the Seward County Sheriff’s office is asking to increase wages for its deputies and record staff.

The recommendation from Sheriff Gene Ward was to increase starting base pay for deputies to $23 an hour and $18.45 for the records division.

Doing this, though, would create pay compression issues, when new employees outpace tenured employees, for those already tenured in their positions. Therefore, Ward would like to give all tenured employees a $3 raise in an effort to mitigate this problem.

The increase would affect about 26 current employees and any new hires, and it would raise the sheriff’s budget by an estimated $122,000.

Ward presented his proposal to commissioners Monday, and he began by sharing some statistics for Seward County from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s 2023 Crime Index.

“We had three murders, 12 rapes, 14 robberies, 49 aggravated assault batteries, 236 property crimes, 44 burglaries, 179 thefts, 13 motor vehicle thefts and three arsons,” he said. “The state has seen a 2.9 percent increase in violent crimes over the previous year and a 17.5 percent increase above the 10-year average.”

Ward then referred to two recent officer-involved shootings, the first in January 2023 when three deputies in Ford County were shot by a suspect wanted in connection with a double homicide in Phoenix.

“This suspect traveled through Seward County utilizing Highway 54,” he said.

The second incident took place last month when two Haskell County deputies were involved in a shooting following a vehicle pursuit.

“These incidents could have just as easily occurred in our county,” Ward said.

Ward added deputies and detectives remain steadfast in combating significant threats to the safety of the community that are only increasing every year.

“They’re quite literally risking their lives for the safety of our community for $20 an hour,” he said. “Seward County is recognized as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, better known as HIDTA. HIDTA was created by Congress with an anti-drug abuse act in 1988. The program determined Seward County to be a critical drug trafficking region of the United States.”

Ward said his office has conducted investigations into drug trafficking organizations utilizing Seward County to distribute dangerous drugs.

“In the past eight months alone, we have seized more than 28 pounds of methamphetamine,” he said. “We have also seized numerous THC and marijuana products, cocaine, crack cocaine, counterfeit fentanyl and fentanyl powder. Our deputies and investigators relentlessly pursue these dangerous drug trafficking organizations that plague our community with these dangerous drugs.”

In addition to everything else, Ward’s office has made 50 DUI arrests thus far in 2024 and responded to 67 motor vehicle wrecks.

“Further, our deputies and investigators are assisting the Liberal Police Department almost every day,” he said. “The Liberal Police Department is very short staffed.  The deputies routinely take Liberal PD calls in an effort to better serve and protect our community. Today, if you start at the Liberal Police Department and you are a certified officer, you also receive a $10,000 sign-on bonus. If you’re uncertified, you still receive a sign-on bonus, but of $5,000. I would hate to see our office lose good people because we failed to pay them adequately.”

Ward said he looked at starting salaries for deputies in eight Kansas counties and found on average, the starting salary was $22.56 an hour.

“Harvey County starts at $23.57 an hour,” he said. “Lyon County starts at $23.18 an hour. Jackson County starts at $25.30 an hour. The Garden City Police Department starts at $25.25 an hour. Coffey County starts between $21 and $23.42 an hour. The Haysville PD starts at $25.75 an hour. The City of Sedgwick starts at $23 to $26 an hour, and the Norton PD starts at $23 to $33.57 an hour. We currently start our deputies at $20, and the last adjustment was in February 2020.”

Because there are a limited number of people who want to work the jobs at the sheriff’s office, Ward said current staff must be retained as well.

“I’m also asking for a salary adjustment for the record staff,” he said. “Our record staff is overloaded with all the duties that are required of them. We constantly struggle to fill the records position, as when the position is offered, it is turned down many times because of the low pay.”

Again, Ward pointed to other counties and communities where staff makes more.

“Ford County starts their record staff at $19.21 an hour,” he said. “Haskell County starts their record staff between $18 and $21 an hour. Our own Liberal Police Department starts their record staff at $18.14 an hour, and we currently start ours at $15.45 an hour. I’m asking an increase of this to $18.45 an hour and a $3 increase to the current record staff. Many other counties across Kansas have raised their wages in order to improve the retention of their current staff and also help attract the needed staff.”

Ward said he had been asked how he plans to pay for the raises, and he said part of that funding could come from an estimated $264,000 in reimbursements the sheriff’s office gets from the City of Liberal. This money is added to the county’s general fund.

“We also collect sheriff fees, civil process fees and commissary fees we receive and put into the general fund with a monthly average of $3,136,” he said.

If approved, Ward said he would like the pay increases to go into effect either with the next pay period or at the beginning of 2025, and that decision would be left to commissioners themselves.

Commission Chairman Scott Carr said he believes discussions about wage increases need to take place during the commission’s budget work session in July, and he said Seward County’s wages were not out of line with those in Ford County and Finney County. Ward, however, said those counties have more beds than Seward County.

“When I went through that list, I went on how many beds we have in the jail, and I averaged it with ho much population we have,” Ward said.

Commissioner Presephoni Fuller asked when a countywide wage increase had been approved. Administrator April Warden said commissioners gave a 2 percent increase in 2022 and a longevity bonus in 2021, as well as a 1.6 percent increase in 2020.

“The wage increases varied because of the compensation plan that was adopted that year,” Warden said of 2020.

Ward confirmed 2020 was the last year he had asked for raises his department. Carr asked if the sheriff had also done a comparison of benefits like insurance with other counties.

Fuller asked if the city’s reimbursement was simply given to the county or if it needed to be budgeted for the upcoming fiscal year. Warden said that money was already included in the FY 2024 budget for expenditures.

“You’re already allocated that money for 2024,” Warden said.

Commission Vice Chair Tammy Sutherland-Abbott said she believes law enforcement are never paid enough, but she did think the proposal needed to be looked at before deciding.

“We have the budget workshop the middle of July, but that doesn’t help us now, which is why I think we need to find maybe a compromise,” she said.

Fuller too was appreciative of the protection and service the sheriff’s office provides, but she likewise wanted to look at the issue budgetarily before something could be done.

“The immediate answer is something I think we have to come together as commissioners in the budget session see if anything is possible,” she said.

Carr asked how much the sheriff’s office charges per bed in the jail. Ward said at this time, that price is $62.

“I know a lot of the counties are up to $100 per bed, and the national average is $93,” Carr said.

“When we’re talking about the money you’re making off the beds, that goes to fund the jail and jail salaries?” Warden said. “We did make some changes for staff based on those numbers as well.”

Commissioner C.J. Wettstein said he saw numbers from the City of Stafford which showed staff there is paid about $21 to $25 an hour.

“I can understand the plight of our officers and our bookkeeper people,” he said.

Warden said increases also affect benefits such as those for the Kansas Police & Firemen’s (KP&F) retirement system.

“However much you raise them, for KP & F members, the employee pays 7.12 percent to be on KP & F, but the county pays 23.1 percent, so for any raise you give them, that is also going to hit employee benefits,” she said.

Because of this, Warden said county officials need to make sure funding is available for employee benefits as well.

“We figure our employee benefits off of what they were making when we approved the 2024 budget with the 23.1 percent we have to pay for the employer’s portion of KP & F, so it affects the sheriff’s office budget by whatever they’re saying,” she said.

Wettstein said he would like to know what the actual numbers are before voting on a proposal.

“It sounds like it’s going to be a little more than the $122,000,” he said. “April could come up with the exact number, see what it’s going to do on the KP & F.”

Originally, KP & F was added as part of Seward County’s benefit package about 20 years ago, and Warden said that decision was made knowing it would cost the county more money.

“It was used as a recruiting tool back then because we were having issues at that time finding employees or being able to keep them,” she said. “It seemed we were training a lot of people, and they were moving on to bigger departments elsewhere. KP & F was added an additional incentive back then to try to not only recruit people but to retain them as well.”

Commissioners will likely address proposed pay raises for the sheriff’s office at their upcoming budget work session scheduled for July 17 and 18.

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