At a meeting with commissioners last month, Steward said the department has had 12 law enforcement officers leave the department in the last two years — including three to the city of Cody’s police department in the last year.
The sheriff said the county’s recently-adopted pay plan, calling for starting deputies to be paid $15.63 an hour, would have put the wages back to what the department was paying four years ago and exacerbate the turnover problem. The pay rate is almost $2 an hour below what the department was hiring at earlier this year and more than $3 an hour below the city of Cody’s starting salary for police officers, he said.
“We get very few applications now and we dump that down $2 an hour, $3.50 (less than Cody), we’re not going to get anybody,” Steward told commissioners at their Aug. 16 meeting.
Commissioners unanimously backed Steward’s request to hire deputies at $17.52 an hour. That’s the rate other deputies were hired at earlier this year.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden. “Scott (Steward) has got a very big problem here that needs to be solved in a hurry.”
“The reality of it is, they’re carrying a gun for a reason and I know I wouldn’t take that job for $15 an hour,” said Commissioner Dave Burke.
Steward said “the guys accept what they do and the threats,” but he said the biggest issue in keeping employees is the late-night shift work of a 24/7 department, which can be hard on families.
At their Sept. 6 meeting, commissioners also agreed to continue to let Park County Homeland Security Coordinator Mart Knapp serve as interim Search and Rescue coordinator for the sheriff’s department, as the officer Steward had been hoping to train for that role left the department. Knapp was also allowed to begin driving his vehicle home from work to more quickly respond to search and rescue calls.
Two of the office’s 18 deputy patrol slots are vacant, plus one vacancy among a staff of 26 detention deputies at the county jail. Further, two more departures were expected, Steward said last month, and two recently-hired deputies are headed to the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy for training.
“My immediate concern is I have to hire three officers right now and at $15 something an hour, I’m not going to get anybody,” Steward said, saying the current job market for police officers is very competitive.
Commissioners adopted a new county-wide pay plan last year, the culmination of years of work studying wages in other governments and the private sector. The plan set each employee post at one of 30 pay grades, based on what the job entails. Each grade has seven steps, which allow employees to receive raises based on things like experience and new responsibilities.
Earlier this year, commissioners told county department heads that new employees needed to start at the first pay step, which, for starting sheriff’s deputies, was the $15.63 rate.
Commissioner Tim French questioned how the county missed getting the deputies at an appropriate wage, noting that all of the departments — including the sheriff’s — were involved in coming up with the pay plan.
“I don’t know how that happened,” Steward said, but he said he’d complained that the survey authors were setting the wage way low with the wages they chose to compare to Park County’s.
“I can only compare to who we’re losing to,” Steward said.
The main concern on commissioners’ minds was how to let Steward deviate from the much-discussed pay scale without opening the door for other departments to hire at higher wages.
During an Aug. 9 discussion among elected officials, County Attorney Bryan Skoric suggested having departments make a case-by-case justification for higher wages, rather than completely redoing the wage scale — “because that was I don’t know how many years of work and stuff.”
Commissioners continue to discuss what to do with the county’s pay scale. In meetings with other elected officials last month and last week, commissioners continued to bat around the idea of basing raises on some kind of performance-based review.
Last month, Skoric suggested commissioners set a base wage increase each fiscal year, say 2 or 3 percent, and allow their fellow elected county officials — sheriff, treasurer, clerk, clerk of district court and assessor — set their individual employees’ wages; commissioners would be responsible for employees’ wages under unelected department heads, like buildings and grounds and road and bridge.
“Across the board raises for everybody is a bad idea,” said Skoric, adding later, “I know of no better incentive for an employee than to watch the person next to them get a bigger raise.”
Treasurer Barb Poley had a different take.
“If they don’t deserve raises, they shouldn’t be working for me anymore,” she said.
Commissioners were open to Skoric’s concept, but said there would need to be objective standards and that it could create a lot of additional work.