MARTINEZ, CA – Contra Costa has lost more than $1 million over the past five years as dozens of sheriff’s deputies it pays to recruit and train have left for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
The steady departure of deputies — more than 100 have resigned in the last two years — is a growing issue for both the undermanned Sheriff’s Office and county supervisors, who will soon begin contract talks with the Deputy Sheriffs Association.
Addressing the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Sheriff David Livingston made the case for a big pay boost, saying that the struggle to retain deputies had forced him to disband his crime-suppression team and reduce patrols. As a result, response times for top priority calls are up about two minutes.
“It’s becoming a near crisis for us,” Livingston said.
Retention has become an increasing problem in several county departments as the county’s lagging property tax base and reduced pension benefits have made it less desirable to public sector workers.
The California Nurses Association said its county unit had lost more than 10 percent of its nurses over the past year to higher-paying health systems. And probation officer Philip Kader said one of his supervisors recently left to make more money as a nonsupervising probation officer in Alameda County.
“The sheriff, the district attorney and I have had numerous conversations over this bleeding of staff, and we’re all confounded over the difficulties it’s causing us to get the work done,” Kader said.
Contra Costa has recently reached three-year contracts with nurses, lawyers and probation officers with cumulative raises ranging from 12 to 16 percent.
Sheriff’s deputies, who provide primary public safety for 168,000 county residents, make 15 percent less than law enforcement officers in neighboring counties and Contra Costa cities, according to a county report released this week. Furthermore, their county pensions are worth about 5 percent less than the pensions of similarly paid law enforcement officials enrolled in the state pension system.
With deputies leaving for more money, the Sheriff’s Office, which currently has 617 sworn deputies, has endured 168 resignations over the past five years. By contrast, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which offers better pay and benefits, had only 40 resign between 2011 and 2014. Meanwhile, 60 of Contra Costa’s 299 deputy sheriff recruits have left within the first three years on the job.
Given that it costs about $26,000 to recruit and train a deputy, that amounts to $1.56 million invested into new recruits who are no longer with the county.
BART has hired 22 of the departed deputies, followed by Richmond, which has hired 11. Livingston said he is asking BART to honor a gentleman’s agreement he has with several local chiefs not to recruit deputies until they have completed at least two years on the job.
“My view is when you are robbing one agency of qualified personnel … you are doing a disservice to public safety throughout the region,” he said.
Supervisor Karen Mitchoff called on Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus to lay off county deputies after Livingston recounted how Richmond hired one deputy shortly after he graduated the county’s academy. “I’m calling you out, Chief Magnus,” she said. “That’s wrong.”
Reached by phone, Magnus said there was no gentleman’s agreement not to hire away officers from other agencies.
“Departments that make these kinds of claims should perhaps look inward as to why their officers are looking for jobs with other agencies instead of blaming the agencies that are hiring,” he said.
While Contra Costa is losing its young deputies, Livingston remains opposed to following the lead of cities such as Oakland in making recent academy graduates repay a portion of their schooling cost if they leave within the first few years after graduation.
“That would be the potential hammer, I suppose, but my concern is it would just lead people not to apply here to begin with,” he said. “It’s not something I think would solve this problem.”