$1 million deal reached to get deputies a raise
ALSO: County leaders end controversial fund

By BEVERLY BARELA
September 14, 2017

In an unprecedented move, the Merced County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this week to approve a roughly $1,000,000-a-year deal to raise the salaries of Merced County Deputy Sheriffs by 10 percent.
Meanwhile, they also did away with an annual budget practice that allotted $200,000 to “special board projects” approved by supervisors for community improvements in their individual districts.
The 10 percent raise, on top of a 4 percent increase last Fall, a 3 percent increase last July, and a 3 percent increase this July, means that deputy sheriffs’ salaries will have increased 20 percent by the end of their contract in 2018.
County Executive Officer Jim Brown said 50 percent of the raise is being funded through revenue that traditionally goes to the sheriff.
He said, "It is an existing revenue fund used for other things."
In making the deal, the supervisors decided to change a long-standing practice of authorizing the sheriff’s discretionary funds for his department’s equipment needs and allowed him to divert the money to salaries instead.
Brown said, "The money was conceptually used toward the front line. But we have traditionally used it for equipment needs. By redirecting this, it will help fund deputies’ salaries. It will mean equipment challenges in the future. But everyone said this is a priority so we made a change in a practice."
Sounding committed, Brown responded to a question from Supervisor Lee Lor about whether the use of the Sheriff’s AB 443 funds would be permanent, saying, "It would eventually be a General Fund cost, whether in a few years, or whenever."
Weighing in, Supervisor Jerry O’Banion said that although the board’s move was unprecedented and he doesn’t want to see it happen very often, his priority is the safety of the citizens.
O’Banion said, "Concern about crime and safety has risen to the top. It’s not a want. It’s a need. I hope the citizens will feel safer as time goes on."
Sheriff Vern Warnke, who described his situation as "16 deputies down", has soundly criticized the Board of Supervisors for several years over their unwillingness to provide enough pay for the county to retain its sheriff’s deputies and recruit new ones. In 2014, the county’s homicide rate was the highest in the State per 100,000 people, according to the Department of Justice. As gang violence ran rampant, deputies left their jobs in a "mass exodus" to go to better-paying agencies, according to Sheriff Warnke and a number of his staff members.
But on Tuesday, the sheriff was overjoyed that the supervisors ratified the amendment to the 2016 agreement between the county and deputy sheriff’s Association.
Describing the impact of the 20 percent overall raise, Warnke told the Times it will boost the average deputy sheriff’s salary in the low $3,000s per month to over $4,000 per month.
He explained, "I opted to pledge the discretionary money that I use for equipment to get the deputies the salaries they so deserve. We will take some of that and divert it into the General Fund. It’s roughly $1,000,000 for 100 people to get a raise."
Sheriff Warnke continued, "My goal is full staffing and the creation of a 4-man Gang Unit with a supervisor to do gang investigations. I want to get the patrol deputies staffing for back-up so they can do proactive work instead of reactive."
He explained he plans to hire "qualified lateral candidates" and also continue to train entry level deputies.
He said, "I’ve had good results with them. I just graduated two from the police academy in Modesto and swore them in."
As to how the deal came about, Sheriff Warnke said, "When Jim Brown broke down the budget, we came up with a compromise."
During the meeting, Sheriff Warnke expressed gratitude to the Board, and exclaimed, "It is already starting to bear fruit."
He said three former Merced County deputy sheriffs who left to go to larger agencies which paid more have expressed an interest in being rehired by Sheriff Warnke. Because they left the department on good terms, he is happy to welcome them back.
Warnke said, "When they see the pay scales, I think we’ll get a lot more qualified lateral candidates."

Special District Funds
Supervisors voted 3-2 to stop directing $200,000 — or $40,000 for each supervisor — annually toward special community projects for their individual districts. Supervisors Rodrigo Espinoza and Lee Lor voted to keep the discretionary funding that became controversial in recent years.
During election campaigns, various supervisor candidates would call out the practice as being nothing short of a “slush fund” for incumbents to be re-elected.
Supporters of the fund, however, said it was vital to support community projects such as the restoration of a local VFW Hall or new picnic areas at Kiddieland.
Unused money in the pool at the end of the fiscal year was being rolled back into the county’s General Fund.
This week’s decision will allow supervisors to keep and decide on whatever they have now in their accounts, but the annual funding will remain in the county's general fund for future budgets.
Both Espinoza and Lor expressed disappointment in the vote. Previously they had teamed up on an idea to allow a committee made up of residents to brainstorm ideas and vote on how they would like the county to use the funds. It was part of a new wave of “participatory budgeting,” they said.
Supervisor Daron McDaniel, however, said his vote to do away with the funds was in keeping with a campaign promise of fiscal responsibility he made to the voters in his district that includes Atwater and a small part of Merced. Supervisors Lloyd Pareira and Jerry O’Banion agreed with the move to end the funds.

Final Budget Approved
According to Scott de Moss, assistant county executive officer, at Tuesday’s meeting the County Supervisors approved the FY 2017-18 operational budget, in final form, in the amount of $633.1 million.
Of that amount, the General Fund budget is $484.1 million, made up of department and dedicated revenues of $355.7 million, leaving $128.4 million of net county costs. The net county cost was balanced by local revenues of $89.6 million and the fund balance of $38.8 million.
De Moss said, "Something important to point out is that the board made a further investment in the county’s reserves, those dollars set aside for future downturns in the economy or natural disasters. They increased the reserves to $30.1 million, an increase of $6.5 million over the previous year."
53 percent of net county costs (money that the board has discretion over as to spending) is dedicated by the board to public safety and the local justice system.


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