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Minn. county talks hiring concerns as Sheriff’s Office at ‘critical’ staffing level

County is only able to provide service for 22 out of 24 hours coverage in a day, and if the department loses another deputy, they may only be able to provide 20

By Sarah Stultz
Albert Lea Tribune, Minn.

ALBERT LEA, Minn. — The Freeborn County sheriff said Tuesday the department is at a critical level with staffing because of difficulties attracting and retaining employees.

Sheriff Kurt Freitag told commissioners during a workshop that the department is presently down four patrol deputies out of 10, and in the jail the department is down seven out of 24 deputies and is anticipating losing another individual in the near future.

Because of this, the county is presently only able to provide service for 22 out of 24 hours coverage in a day, and if the department loses another deputy, they may only be able to provide 20. It will request mutual aid as needed to fill the gap.

“If we have someone go out on an injury, we’re in dire straits,” Freitag said.

He said the applicants the department has been getting are mostly repeat candidates they have passed on previously, and he is concerned the department is not attracting the candidates they would like. Then when they do find a candidate who would be good for the position, it takes too long for the background check that they often get a call from the candidate in the meantime telling them that he or she has accepted another job elsewhere.

Despite the quality health insurance and other benefits the county provides, he said he thinks new candidates are mainly concerned with their starting wage.

He compared the starting wage for a patrol deputy with the department at about $28.82 an hour to that of an Albert Lea Police Department officer at $30.93 an hour. The police department also offers a bump in pay after the officer completes field training hours and again on the first anniversary.

He noted that the Police Department is fully staffed, while the Sheriff’s Office is struggling hiring people.

“The bottom line is we need to do something to attract candidates,” Freitag said.

Fifth District Commissioner Ted Herman said the comparison is not apples to oranges and said comparisons need to be made with other agencies of similar size and calls for service.

Second District Commissioner Dan Belshan asked if the Sheriff’s Office could work more with the city of Albert Lea and find out how it is finding its officers.

Freeborn County Human Resources Director Candace Pesch said the wage for the county’s patrol officers is currently at 100% of the market value.

“We’re competitive in the market,” she said.

The county previously approved bumping up the starting pay for a patrol deputy one step, and Freitag said he would like to see another.

He has also tried to be creative, noting he recently had a flier made up to advertise open positions in Lake Mills, where Larson Manufacturing announced it was closing its doors. The department is also paying to advertise the open positions in the newspaper there.

Pesch said of the 52 applications the county has received for patrol deputies since February 2021, 36 of those were interviewed. Twelve were eliminated during the background checks, four withdrew and 11 canceled their interview potentially because they accepted another position.

Out of the 52, the county hired one person.

For the jail, Pesch said the county has received 117 applications since February 2021, and out of that number has interviewed 76. Sixteen were eliminated in the background check phase, 12 withdrew, 15 didn’t show up for the interview and two canceled their interview. Out of the 117 applications, seven were hired.

Freitag said he previously spoke with the Anoka County sheriff about hiring, and at the time he needed to hire 14 deputies, and he said his candidates were as dismal as Freeborn County’s.

“Statewide, everybody’s fighting for candidates,” Pesch said.

Several noted how difficult it has been for law enforcement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

The county previously discussed sign-on bonuses.

A few commissioners said they liked the idea of the wage increase after the deputy completes field training just as the city of Albert Lea offers.

Freitag said he would also like to speed up the background check process.

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