Proposed layoffs would affect 12 employees at county jail, sheriff's office

By JENNIFER COHRON
Posted 9/14/17

Daily Mountain Eagle

The Walker County Jail and the Sheriff’s Office will lose a combined 12 part-time employees at the end of the month if cutbacks proposed recently by the Walker County Commission take effect.

The commission approved the …

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Proposed layoffs would affect 12 employees at county jail, sheriff's office

Posted

Daily Mountain Eagle

The Walker County Jail and the Sheriff’s Office will lose a combined 12 part-time employees at the end of the month if cutbacks proposed recently by the Walker County Commission take effect.

The commission approved the layoff of 19 part-time employees at a Sept. 5 meeting to address an estimated $1.8 million General Fund deficit in fiscal year 2018.

Eliminating the 19 part-time employees would save $375,000 annually, county administrator Cheryl Ganey told commissioners during the meeting.

Jail administrator Trent McCluskey confirmed this week that 10 of the employees work at the jail.

The Walker County Sheriff’s Office will also lose a part-time dispatcher and an officer assigned to courthouse security, according to Chief Deputy Dayron Bridges.

The cutbacks complicate a current staffing shortage at the jail. There are currently six open full-time positions that will remain unfilled temporarily as a result of a hiring freeze approved on Sept. 5.

McCluskey cited several reasons for the shortage, which he described as a rather recent development.

“We’ve had some vacancies for road deputies. Some of the people have in-service promoted out to those positions. Some of them have left employment here, and some have sat vacant as we wait to see that the funding will be there to provide for these people before we ask them to leave where they are now to come here,” McCluskey said.

McCluskey noted that staffing is one of the issues addressed in a consent order from 1994 that led to the construction of the jail after several inmates filed suit over conditions at the previous facility.

One section of the consent order states that the jail “shall be staffed with a sufficient number of officers” to ensure jail security and inmate safety.

In 1998, a corrections expert working on behalf of the National Institute of Corrections helped develop a staffing ratio for the jail. The result was a set of post orders that outlined 14 separate job positions.

McCluskey characterized having 14 jail staff on duty as an ideal that has never been realistically attainable, noting that employees often serve in more than one post.

“A minimum of seven is where it should be. Is it? No. It should never go below six. We have been down to four on a shift on occasion. We have policy against that, but when you don’t have the staffing or the funding to enforce the policy, you operate in violation of your own policy,” McCluskey said.

At least three people are required to remain at their post at all times to operate the jail’s electronic doors, according to McCluskey. He noted that staffing shortages leave no one available at times to patrol the various areas of the jail.

With the jail currently averaging 240 inmates per day, slightly below the facility’s 278-person capacity, McCluskey described inmate safety and personnel safety as an ongoing concern.

Training for jail staff is also compromised when staffing is low, according to McCluskey.

The training is currently being handled on-the-job under the supervision of a lieutenant rather than through an accredited program.

“When your numbers are this low, you can’t spare them to go to the training,” McCluskey said.

Managing overtime also becomes more complicated during a staffing crunch, McCluskey added. More than $126,000 has been spent on overtime at the jail during the current fiscal year, more than double the $60,000 allotted under the budget.

Bridges said it is difficult to imagine how the jail will operate without the 10 part-time employees who are set to be laid off at the end of the month, while the loss of a dispatcher will have an impact within the sheriff’s department.

At least two dispatchers are needed each shift to handle the office’s daily call volume, according to Bridges.

“We have dispatchers who sit in that room who don’t get a lunch break or a coffee break. They sit in that room for eight hours because there is nobody to relieve them on the evening and midnight shift. That’s what the part-time dispatcher is for. She floats from shift to shift,” he said.

Bridges said he has given thought to how the sheriff’s department and jail will compensate for the looming staff cuts, but the hiring freeze and civil service classifications limit the options.

“There is nobody to pull from because we’ve got classifications here. There are dispatchers, jailers, deputies and clerks. In order to move one to another one, the (Walker County) Civil Service Board has to approve it and they (the employees) have to be willing because you’ve got pay differences, shift differences, training differences,” he said.

The proposed layoffs was one of several moves made by the commission earlier this month to address a possible deficit for the current fiscal year and a projected General Fund deficit of $1.8 million in 2018.

Department heads have been asked to trim 10 percent from their budgets for next year. The next budget work session is scheduled for Monday following the commission’s regular monthly meeting.