By DOANE YAWGER
& JONATHAN WHITAKER
With the District Attorney by his side, Sheriff Vern Warnke paid a visit to the Merced County Board of Supervisors during the public comment period at the start of their meeting on Tuesday.
The sheriff had a resignation letter in his hand. It was from one of his correctional officers who turned it in that very morning.
Reasons for the departure were concise, sharp and bitter: “High demand of overtime … unexpected holdovers — three to four times a week … frustrated and exhausted.”
Warnke looked up, stared at the dais, and said: “During your individual campaigns, each and every one of you promised to support public safety.”
Then the sheriff recounted a talk he had last week with one of the supervisors, who at one point in the conversation made the remark: “I’m a numbers man.”
Warnke paused his thoughts, looked down at some papers, and said: “Here’s some numbers”:
- No. 1 in the state for homicides per capita.
- 51 open homicide cases to be tried by the district attorney with 7 vacancies.
- 63 defendants in those homicides
- 33 percent — 34 corrections officers down.
- 20 percent — 14 deputy sheriffs down, “not including the almost 10 who are off for long term.”
- 30 percent — dispatchers [down], also with “mandatory overtime every single week and pulling 12-hour shifts”
- 106, 8-hour shifts this past week for the correctional bureau which totaled 848 hours of planned overtime. “That doesn’t include calling in sick and hospital time.”
- “Multiple phone calls from this board to my agency for stuff going on in your districts, and we do it with a very glad heart when you need help, but it’s still calling our office. And something to consider [when you are talking about your budget] is all the agencies that you don’t call.”
- 14 to 70 percent raise — all at once — for a couple of deputy CEOs [executive officers in county administration], “because well, you had to pay them what they are worth. Well folks, I’m going to tell you, I’m not saying they’re not worth it. What I’m saying is that when you call 911, we’re the ones that go.”
- 4,402 animals in the animal shelter, and almost 2,000 “we had to euthanize,” partly due to staffing.
The sheriff summed up his points to the supervisors by saying: “I don’t have a hundred people in this room to explain to you why these numbers are so important. … I’m here to tell you I’m close to declaring an absolute emergency where we’re going to have to have people working outside of their scopes. It’s that serious. I’m hoping you take it seriously. I know each one of you have told me to my face how much you support and will support public safety. This isn’t a game. I’m not out here whining like Oliver wishing for another cup of porridge. And that’s what it’s become. Remember folks, your job is to guarantee we have the resources to take care of the community that we were elected to serve.”
After the Sheriff’s public comment time (limited to 3 minutes) ended, members of the Board of Supervisors remained mostly quiet, with the exception of a quick question from Supervisor Josh Pedrozo about one of the numbers Warnke mentioned.
Finally, Board Chair Scott Silveira made a suggestion to the top lawman that he should put his concerns on the official agenda so that all the board members could discuss the issues with him at length in a constructive dialogue.
During an hour-long visit with the Times on Monday, Sheriff Warnke spoke at length about short staffing, a lack of urgency from county supervisors, and the overriding need to make dedicated staff members want to come to work every day.
The sheriff said the department has 98 deputies and 106 correctional officers, with a total staff of 406 people. He said he has put in for eight more deputies.
“I don’t sense any urgency from the Board of Supervisors,” he said. “The head librarian is paid more than the undersheriff. Send a librarian out to these calls. Staffing levels are so low that when officers from the cities within the county have a prisoner it can take hours for the booking to take place.”
The mindset is that everybody throughout the various county departments should be treated equally in budget terms, but Warnke doesn’t believe in that. We need to get away from that mentality, he added.
One of the biggest challenges Warnke faces is morale within his agency.
“A lot of young people live from paycheck to paycheck. We have to make them want to come to work and try to keep them motivated. That is the biggest hurdle at this agency, it is getting tougher to pay bills with what the county wants to pay,” Warnke said.
Meanwhile, Warnke said he was forced to abolish his department’s task force to fight gang crime at a time when gang violence is skyrocketing. There are 57 documented gangs in the county.
“We need to get the legislators in Sacramento to realize the gravity of the fentanyl drug problem. People who sell fentanyl should be charged with attempted murder,” he said.
In related news:
There is a groundbreaking ceremony planned Sept. 19 for the $45 million project to update the current jail at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility near El Nido and add a new wing with 256 beds.
This project got held up for years because of bureaucracy and won’t be completed for two years. Because of time delays, the price tag has risen to $74 million.
When the new correctional facility is done, the current jail on West 22nd Street will be torn down. New facilities for sheriff’s administrators are being contemplated at the former Castle AFB.