By Debra Moore
What Sheriff Todd Johns has been predicting for months has happened — critical staffing levels are forcing him to take deputies off the streets — beginning Sunday.
Sheriff Johns made the announcement during the Plumas County Board of Supervisors meeting today, Jan. 17. “We will only be operating one two-man vehicle during the day and one at night,” he told the supervisors.
So what happens if that vehicle is in Portola and there is call for help in Chester? Best case scenario, help is an hour and a half away. But if the deputies are busy with a case, the wait time would be longer. The sheriff said efforts would be made to reach off duty personnel as well as the California Highway Patrol, but there’s no guarantee help would be available in that moment.
And as dire as the situation is now, Johns is afraid it could get worse. There are currently 11 vacancies in the jail, with two more employees potentially set to leave. Those remaining are working 12- to 16-hour shifts and have been doing so for the past year. A minimum staffing level is required at the correctional facility, and Johns said that half of his patrol staff will have to work in the jail to meet that level.
Additionally, Johns fears more dispatchers might leave their positions, which would require deputies to work in dispatch as well, perhaps impacting the ability to patrol at all. As a result, the sheriff’s office will be prioritizing felonies, while other calls for service will have to wait.
During an interview following the meeting, Johns said he knows that this is going to impact the level of service that the public is used to receiving. And he wants the public’s help. “Residents need to secure their homes by locking doors and putting up cameras,” he said. “They need to lock their car doors.”
Johns also shared his frustration with the situation. “If they weren’t working 12-hour shifts; if they had a pay raise …” he said of those who have left his staff for more lucrative and less demanding jobs right here in Plumas — both within the county family and with other employers.
He listed several employees who left for those reasons including one correctional officer who moved over to code enforcement and received an immediate pay raise, with a normal work schedule. “Money aside, they don’t have a life,” Undersheriff Chad Hermann said of the situation.
Of course, Plumas County isn’t alone in facing law enforcement staffing issues — it’s a statewide as well as national issue — but Johns says steps can be taken to mitigate the issue locally; his staff isn’t leaving because they don’t like the work; it’s mainly because of the pay.
A Plumas County correctional officer or a dispatcher earns $18.92 per hour to start, while a deputy’s pay begins at $21.52. In neighboring Sierra County, deputies start out $9 higher. And based on Sierra County’s pay scale, Johns himself would earn more as the undersheriff there than he does as the sheriff in Plumas. Johns said salaries must increase by 20 to 25 percent just to be in range of the 10-county comparison, the Human Resources department typically uses. And, if he were fully staffed, then employees would not have to work the long hours and extra shifts that they do now, which is their other main complaint.
It’s a bit ironic. Because of the short staffing, the county is paying a lot of overtime. Rather than pay overtime, Johns said it only makes sense to pay employees more, so that the overtime isn’t necessary.
During the board meeting, the supervisors did not respond to Johns’ announcement because it was not an item on the agenda. But it wasn’t the first time that he has brought his concerns to the board, and prior to today’s meeting he met with the chairman and vice chairman of the board of supervisors, Dwight Ceresola and Greg Hagwood, and County Administrative Officer Debra Lucero to apprise them of his decision.
When asked about their response, he said Ceresola was engaged in the conversation, and Hagwood, as the former sheriff, “backed up everything we had to say.”
Reached for comment, Hagwood said that the supervisors are aware of the crisis in terms of the staffing. “We have had discussions in the board room and at the sheriff’s office,” he said. “We are trying to look for ways to improve funding for existing and new staff.”
Johns said that the sheriff’s office will be carefully monitoring response levels as the new patrol plan goes into effect.