SLO County Sheriff's Office will hire more deputies to cut millions of dollars in overtime

Sep 25, 2019

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson asked county officials this summer for an additional $3.55 million dollars in general fund money to cover unbudgeted overtime pay. Last year, several sheriff's department employees nearly doubled their salaries through working overtime hours. This month, Parkinson announced a plan to hire more deputies in an effort to rein in those overtime costs

Parkinson told the county board of supervisors on Sept. 17 his department's budget covered overtime costs in the past, but due to a combination of increased salaries, retiring employees and vacant positions, the department is now short-staffed. He outlined a plan—which the supervisors approved—he says would help the sheriff’s office stick to its budget by hiring more deputies than the department currently needs.

At the end of the 2018 fiscal year, the county sheriff's department had a budget deficit of just under $3 million. Parkinson’s request for additional funds was granted, but came as other county offices were shaving money off their budgets for the 2019 fiscal year, to account for a $3.6 million countywide budget gap.

The county sheriff's department has the largest budget and also receives the most county funds of any other county department. It provides law enforcement in the unincorporated areas of San Luis Obispo County, as well as correctional services at the county jail, a forensic crime lab, and a coroner's unit that conducts autopsies on violent deaths in the county. Currently the department has just over 430 employees.

Parkinson told the supervisors unlike other county offices, when a sheriff’s deputy calls out sick, the office can’t let the shift go unmanned.

“We’re not in a position where we can simply not have people come in when we need to staff beats in the field and in the jail,” Parkinson said. “It’s not acceptable to you, not acceptable to me and certainly not acceptable to the public." 

Parkinson has declined multiple KCBX News requests to talk about the department's overtime costs. The department's public information officer, Tony Cipolla, told KCBX News in an email that most of the overtime in the sheriff’s office was “related to the duties and responsibilities of both correctional and patrol deputies. The majority of the OT was due to call-outs, holiday pay, short staff, sick relief and vacation relief. For sick relief and vacation relief we needed to backfill because of our shortages in staffing.”

In 2018, several sheriff’s office employees nearly doubled their salary in overtime. According to public government data from the California State Controller, a San Luis Obispo County senior corrections deputy with an annual salary of $90,463 made $86,820 in overtime pay, for a total of $177,283. A senior deputy with a $103,930 salary made $82,893 in overtime. And a correctional deputy making $75,094 pulled in an additional $65,493 in overtime to total $140,587.

Top San Luis Obispo County Sheriff-Coroner employee overtime earners in 2018
Credit publicpay.ca.gov

Three other deputies earned an additional $53,000 to $64,000 in overtime, which was 50 percent or more of their annual salaries. And more than 30 employees earned between $30,000 and $48,000 in overtime pay.

Speaking before the board of supervisors, Parkinson said some employees volunteer for the overtime and others don’t.

“When we have mandatory overtime that means they are being forced to work on their days off [and] that is not a healthy way to run an agency,” Parkinson said, addressing mental health concerns of having department employees log tremendous amounts of overtime.

"When you are mentally stressed [and] mentally fatigued, that can manifest itself in a physical fatigue and physically affect your mental health and mood,” Parkinson said. “We don’t want grumpy deputies out there. We want happy deputies.”

This summer, Parkinson and San Luis Obispo County Administrative Officer Wade Horton announced they were working together to come up with a plan to reduce overtime hours within the sheriff's office. Cipolla said the plan has been in the works for more than two years. Parkinson told county supervisors that overfilling 12 positions in the office, with salaries and benefits, would still be cheaper because overtime is so costly.

Parkinson plans to add six deputies to patrol and six at the county jail, and more soon, as 29 officers are planning to retire over the next three years. Horton spoke to KCBX News by phone and explained the sheriff’s office needs to start training new officers now.

“It takes about 12-to-18 months to get those new recruits to operate independently,” Horton said.

Horton and Parkinson said the money for those jobs should come from the sheriff’s office annual budget, since the department will be saving money in overtime.

But the plan is contingent on being able to fill the positions. Parkinson told county supervisors it can be challenging to find good candidates.

“It’s not uncommon for a pool of 200 applicants to only yield a handful of viable candidates, eligible for hire,” Parkinson said in his request to the board.

Parkinson said of 179 applicants in 2017, only 42 were eligible for hire. In 2018, only 25 candidates were eligible from a pool of 160 applicants.

Horton said law enforcement departments across the Central Coast are struggling to recruit new officers.

“If you talk to some of the seven cities in the county, they are also having a challenge recruiting a new police force to the area,” Horton said. "I think the cost of living certainly could play a role [especially] if you are looking at someone [doing] a lateral transfer; looking to leave the department they are in and come to the Central Coast.”

When board of supervisors approved Parkinson’s request to hire more deputies, he said if he fills the positions, there is also a second phase of the plan, aimed at making scheduling more efficient.

The sheriff’s office receives more money from the county general fund than any other department. In 2018, the department spent more than $78 million, of which roughly $50 million ended up coming from the county general fund—nearly a quarter of all general fund contributions that year.

The general fund also supported other county departments in 2018: the public health department received nearly $23 million and just under $20 million went to county fire. The sheriff’s office general fund budget has been steadily rising since 2015, after hovering between $30 and $40 million dollars for several years. For the 2019/2020 fiscal year, the sheriff’s office has a planned budget of $81 million, with $50 million coming from the county general fund.

In an email, Cipolla said the sheriff's office doesn’t anticipate asking the board of supervisors for more overtime expenses next year. Horton said the 2019/2020 budget now includes $4.3 million more to cover overtime costs—$2 million more than last year.

Parkinson told the board he is hopeful the new hires will help offset costs, but it could take a year or more for the savings to kick in.