ELKHART — Sheriff Brad Rogers believes the Elkhart County Sheriff's Department is in the midst of a staffing crisis, with low wages leading to a high turnover rate that may ultimately impact services.
Rogers made a plea to the Elkhart County Council on Saturday, April 12, to amend an ordinance so he could increase starting pay for corrections and patrol officers.
The council approved the request, but that's just the first step in addressing the problem, Rogers said Wednesday, April 16.
“With the increase of the economy, people are leaving in numbers that we’ve not seen before to go for higher (paid) positions,” Rogers said.
Dozens of employees have left in the past several years for jobs at factories, fast food restaurants and other law enforcement departments in the area.
While the public sector has slowly recovered since the economy crashed, raises for county government positions have been rare or non-existent.
“In 2008 the county council basically froze all raises, so for the last five years we’ve not been able to keep up,” Rogers said.
Now, wages at the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department are among the lowest in the region.
“That complicates issues when our public expects the sheriff’s department to be at a level of service and provide them with professionalism in responding to calls and violent situations,” Rogers said.
Rogers' biggest worry is that he’ll eventually have to cut major services to the public.
“That could include reducing lobby hours for people visiting inmates. It could mean that we don’t respond to certain types of calls,” he said.
School resource officers are another service that may have to be eliminated, or at least reduced. The department recently started requiring residents to report non-violent crimes online in order to free up time for officers.
“My main concern is to run the jail and to protect the citizens as much as I possibly can, but I can’t do it all myself,” Rogers said.
Thanks to the ordinance amendment approved by the county council, corrections officers will now start at $13.37 instead of $12 an hour, and patrol officers will start at $16.50 an hour instead of $14.75, but that still doesn’t address senior employees or other positions.
The next step for Rogers is adjusting the department's pay structure and returning to the county council in June to request additional increases.
He hopes to eventually offset the cost of increasing wages by renting out some of the jail’s empty beds to inmates of the Department of Corrections and U.S. Marshals Service.
Ultimately, it’s up to the county council whether wages will be increased.
“One of the questions is whether or not they’re going to take this seriously and whether to prioritize the pots of money that are within county government to make sure that county service is maintained,” Rogers said.