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Deputy shortage forces changes to Pa. county court schedule

Interim Somerset County sheriff says “we gotta do something about” $11.92 per hour starting pay which makes it difficult to recruit and retain deputies

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By January, 2023 the Somerset County will only have four deputies available for inmate transport and guarding the courthouse.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith

By David Hurst
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

SOMERSET, Pa. — A year ago, Somerset County Interim Sheriff Dustin Weir said he had 10 deputies transporting inmates, serving court papers and guarding the county courthouse.

In January, it will often be as low as four.

The issue that has Weir frustrated is forcing Somerset County’s court system to make at least one adjustment next month.

President Judge D. Gregory Geary confirmed Wednesday that he is spacing out the Motions Court schedule so that deputies aren’t needed to protect multiple courtrooms at the same time.

“Currently, Judge (Scott) Bittner and I have motions court simultaneously, which requires deputies to bring defendants into two courtrooms from the jail at the same time,” Geary said, noting that requires multiple deputies for each courtroom.

“With the situation Sheriff Weir is dealing with ... I told him that I always want to be flexible and adapt to changing conditions, such as this one.”

Weir said the move “eases the pressure.”

But he’s still concerned about next year.

‘At the front door’

It takes two deputies to transport an inmate from the jail next door, Weir said. The same number are assigned to courts when criminal proceedings are in session.

That doesn’t occur daily but other tasks do, particularly staffing the security “scanning” system that greets courthouse guests when they enter the main doors each day, he said.

“People are checking their weapons,” Weir said. “It’s nothing for us to have people handing over pocket knives every day.”

Without more staff, he said he’s not sure how his deputies could staff the scanner and handle other duties when court is in session.

Geary described the main entrance’s security as “our top priority.”

And he said he has informed Weir that the county will do whatever it takes to ensure security scanning continues, noting that the step better protects the rest of the courthouse inside.

“Ultimately, the presiding judge is responsible for security in the courthouse,” he said. “If it comes to it, I’ll sacrifice security in my own courtroom to ensure we have someone at the front door.”

Geary said he’ll also continue working with Weir and the rest of the courts team to ensure the system remains flexible to accommodate the Sheriff’s Office’s staffing limitations.

The judge said he’s looking at contingency plans to address emergency staffing situations if the total number of deputies drops below four — something he’s hopeful won’t occur.

“We have to ensure there’s a capable person (stationed) at the front door,” Geary said.

Pay rate, training

Weir said he currently averages six deputies on a typical day — through a mix of full- and part-time officers.

One deputy is retiring in the next two weeks and another is moving on to another line of work, which will bring the number to four as of Jan. 6, he said.

“The other (departing deputy) reached his year of employment and now he’d have to attend the sheriff’s deputy training academy,” he said of the program that requires trainees to spend 19 weeks training in Harrisburg. “He decided to move on instead.”

Weir said the young deputy isn’t the first to decide to pursue other work rather than undergo 760 hours of training for a job that starts out at $11.92 an hour.

Following the Somerset County commissioners meeting Tuesday, Weir voiced his concerns that wages have become a roadblock to recruiting and retaining staff.

“We have three vacant full-time slots right now and one-part time,” Weir said. “But it’s hard to bring someone in when they can earn $18 somewhere else with a municipal department.

“The pay,” he added. “We gotta do something about it.”

[Poll call: What COs said were the biggest challenges for corrections in 2022?]

Comparing salaries

Somerset County’s entry-level deputy pay appears to be lagging behind the region’s other sixth-class counties — the statewide classification for those with 45,000 to 89,999 residents.

Officials with the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office told The Tribune-Democrat that the starting pay for a deputy there is $13.50 per hour, and negotiations are underway to revisit the union’s wages.

Indiana County pays $18.84 for full-time, entry-level deputies and $21.47 for part-time staff.

Somerset County President Commissioner Gerald Walker said entry-level pay is a contract matter.

And negotiations on the deputies’ AFSCME union’s contract won’t occur until late next year, when the deal is set to expire, he said.

“The last time we negotiated with them, the starting salary wasn’t something they ... were concerned with” at the bargaining table, Walker said.

That can be revisited in negotiations, but Walker and fellow commissioners maintain pay is only part of the equation.

A national trend

Counties across the state and the nation are struggling with shortages in their sheriff’s departments and other law enforcement branches.

In Lancaster County, a lingering 25% deputy vacancy rate compelled county commissioners in May to a temporary deal with an outside detective agency to handle certain department duties. An incentive package, including a $12,000 retention bonus, was also approved to enable the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office to rebuild its numbers in the interim, Lancaster Online reported at the time.

In California, Palo Alto County’s sheriff announced plans to shutter two of its judicial buildings due to a lack of staff — before the county’s presiding judge blocked the effort and addressed the issue through scheduling changes.

For various reasons — including the stress of law-enforcement jobs — the number of people either trained for, or seeking, police work isn’t what it was 15 years ago, Walker said.

“And we have to think outside the box” to solve the problem, Walker said.

Beyond placing ads seeking new deputies, Somerset’s commissioners say they want to continue working with Weir to reverse the broader trend.

Walker said the county has looked into the idea of developing a deputy “career pathway” through Pennsylvania Highlands Community College’s municipal police training program.

“We have to grow our own talent pool here in Somerset County,” Walker said.

Weir said cadets would help, but it would probably be short-term support.

After a year at the courthouse, most would likely seek work elsewhere for higher-paying jobs, he said.

The commissioners said they view the situation differently — and salary alone doesn’t account for county benefits, healthcare coverage, and weekends off.

Those perks are part of the pitch they plan to make to the Penn Highlands’ academy’s upcoming graduating class, Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said.

“It’s going to take a number of methods to address this issue,” she said. “There’s not going to be an overnight solution to this problem.”

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