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Deputies must work overtime

Tue., July 24, 2007, midnight

Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies will work mandatory overtime and 12-hour shifts beginning Aug. 5 as the department’s deputy shortage approaches “critical mass,” Sheriff Rocky Watson said Monday.

“A 12-hour shift is not the Band-Aid fix, it’s a tourniquet,” Watson said. “It’s a drastic measure for only a short-term fix. You can’t do it very long.”

The department is operating with only about 60 percent of its patrol positions filled. The county continues to lose employees to law enforcement agencies in Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and elsewhere that pay much higher wages.

Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger said 10 new hires are in training – a process that takes about six months – and there are six more open positions. Soon there will be seven openings, possibly more.

One deputy resigned last week. Two others have applied at the Coeur d’Alene Police Department and are at the final stage of the application process there.

It would take about $2.2 million to make deputy pay in Kootenai County competitive with other departments, Wolfinger said.

The Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls police departments pay beginning officers about $2 an hour more than Kootenai County, where starting pay is $17.19.

Watson said he is concerned the mandatory overtime and long shifts will cause employee burnout and poor morale. But the sheriff said he’s also concerned about public safety. With fewer deputies covering the county, response times are increasing.

It recently took a deputy 24 minutes to respond to a home invasion near Athol, and another 42 minutes to reach a reported home invasion in Harrison.

“We can’t have these response times continue to climb because of low staffing,” Watson said.

The pay disparity has caused a high rate of turnover in the Sheriff’s Department, which also oversees the jail. Four or five years ago, the average deputy in the department had been there for five or six years, Watson said. Now the average level of experience is two years, he said.

“We’re promoting people to Field Training Officers with two year’s experience,” Watson said. Field Training Officers train and supervise new hires.

Kootenai County’s budget process won’t wrap up until early fall. County commissioners said it will take time to fix the department’s woes.

“We all know there’s a problem there,” Commissioner Rich Piazza said. “We’re going to address what we can. It’s going to be something we can’t address all at once.”

Piazza and Commissioner Todd Tondee said they recognize the need to address the pay issue. How is the question that remains, and neither has an immediate solution.

In the meantime, Watson said his deputies will continue working extra hours. So far this year, those extra hours have amounted to $85,000 in overtime pay.

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