Sheriff Warnke focused on new facilities, staffing, homeless problems
There’s a lot going on right now with the Merced County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Vern Warnke is facing multiple challenges and obstacles to getting things done.
But the 63-year-old sheriff is eager to keep tackling these thorny issues and intends to run again for another term in this year’s election. He has pulled papers for re-election and intends to turn them in within the next week or so.
“I don’t have an ending date but I promised as long as I have a desire, and I do, and my health is good, and the people still want me, I will stay here,” Warnke says. “I am blessed very much. I get to go to work today.”
To his knowledge, Warnke says no one else intends to run for sheriff.
Warnke has the blessing of his wife of 41 years, Kathy, who he calls his rock. He saw his oncologist two weeks ago and he is clear of cancer.
Warnke says there is a lot happening with this agency of more than 400 employees. This includes understaffing in several departments, critical needs for new facilities, leniency in sentencing, lack of support from politicians and the District Attorney’s office, and a stubborn homeless situation that refuses to go away.
“Most employees here are top-notch and they get the job done. Everybody’s pulling in the right direction,” Warnke says.
A veteran of 43 years with the department, Warnke is looking forward to modernization of its facilities, including major upgrading of its John Latorraca Correctional Facility on Sandy Mush Road, demolition of the current jail in downtown Merced and building of a new administrative operation at the former Castle Air Force Base.
Besides the challenge of getting a new jail built, a recent audit by the Bureau of State Community Corrections agency showed the Merced County Sheriff’s Department is woefully understaffed, by at least 20 officers, in correctional staff members. Between the downtown and Sandy Mush facilities, the department has about 90 correctional officers.
About seven months ago, the sheriff’s department inherited the county’s code enforcement responsibilities. He says the public is horribly underserved in this area. There now are two full-time code enforcement officers and two part-time officers — they could employ 10 full-time code enforcers and still not get everything done, he laments.
These “quality of life” issues stand out right now, along with eradication of the eyesores that accompany homeless encampments.
“There’s a misconception on homelessness. The thinking is if you build something for them they will come. That’s self-serving and these folks don’t want services and don’t want to be helped,” Warnke says.
Warnke, who became sheriff in December 2013, said the department has a SET team with a sergeant and three full-time deputies. Their primary responsibility is dealing with the homeless.
“Within 24 hours someone who is homeless could have a new mailing address but the reality is they don’t take it. The homeless are facing mental health and drug issues. But the law has changed and there are no consequences for being under the influence. There is no way we can help them,” Warnke says. “The politicians in Sacramento have sold a bill of goods to the citizens.”
The decriminalization of certain crimes is a heartache for businesses and deputies as well.
“Until we get politicians to realize they are the root cause of the problems we are having, it will continue. Governor Newsom created the problem and now he’s trying to save us from it,” Warnke says.
Recent “smash and grab” robberies, including one at a Merced Mall jewelry store and several in San Francisco, have gotten the governor’s attention, particularly since he owns a San Francisco store that also was victimized, the sheriff says.
“Zero bail, where people can’t be arrested and are ticketed instead, is a big challenge for me taking care of folks in this county. We have had little cooperation from the District Attorney’s Office and that’s my statement of opinion,” Warnke says.
He cites an instance where SERT officers busted up a homeless encampment at McKee and Kibby roads. They cited the offenders for violating the county’s camping ordinance, trespassing and dumping solid waste but the District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges.
“We have got gunslingers picking up trash. They are high-priced trash collectors and that’s a huge problem,” Warnke says.
Along with homelessness, a major hurdle for the department is getting its new facilities built. Warnke says they have been waiting six years to get the funding for new facilities and it has been a nightmare in the meantime.
The latest bid for jail modernization is $70 million with the operations building out at Castle expected to cost another $40 million. That would house the business office, civil bureau, coroner’s office, evidence technicians and sheriff’s administration.
Warnke says he believes wholeheartedly that things would not have moved along without the tenacity of Capt. Greg Sullivan. Within the last five years $17 million in deferred maintenance has been identified.
Within two years the original jail and administrative offices on West 22nd Street will be demolished. It was determined it would cost more to fix up the downtown facilities than to build new ones.
Modernization will take two phases. The first is a new jail out at Sandy Mush and the second is a new operations center at Castle.
Warnke says they are hoping to break ground on the modernization before the end of this year and the projects are expected to take two years to complete.