Dismayed by rising overtime spending by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, County Board members on Thursday parried with Sheriff Rich Stanek and discussed more strictly regulating his staffing levels and strategy.
The board, meeting in a budget session, said it's considering lowering the number of authorized staffers Stanek can have, holding back part his 2015 budget and sending in a consultant to find ways to hold down the department's overtime costs, which rose to $5 million this year. A vote on the sheriff's budget will come Tuesday with the rest of the 2015 county plan.
The issue is Stanek's use of overtime pay to meet staffing needs rather than hiring the authorized maximum complement of full-timers. The department is permitted to hire 808 full-time equivalent employees, but currently has only 754.
The elected sheriff, who has a history of icy exchanges with the board, bristled at the suggestion that his management was anything less than exemplary and attributed the overtime spike to an unusually high rate of staff departures in 2014. He said hiring new people is expensive, takes time and saves a "negligible" amount of money over the cost of paying overtime.
Board Chairman Mike Opat proposed dropping the permitted staff complement from 808 to 778. Opat's proposal wouldn't cut Stanek's budget, but would "reset expectations" regarding staffing levels by eliminating the "phantom" positions, the chairman said.
The board, which levies and distributes property taxes, sends Stanek money but has little say in how he chooses to spend it.
"The only control we have is over [staffing] complement and budget, so we've got to exercise some control," Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said.
The Sheriff's Department is responsible not just for countywide patrols, water safety and investigations, but the grittier task of running the busy downtown Minneapolis jail, securely shuttling inmates all day, and protecting the public and the judiciary. Earlier this year, a criminal defendant bolted from a courtroom, eluding armed sheriff's deputies and escaping the building.
McLaughlin asked why Stanek's department has been using overtime rather than hiring more deputies to run the jail and protect courthouses. He also argued that entry-level salaries of about $37,000 are cheaper than time-and-a-half overtime pay for more experienced employees with a salary of $61,000.
Stanek countered that hiring new employees takes a lot of time and is expensive, too, because newcomers undergo background checks and spend four to six months in training before they're ready to work.
He also said that this year's high overtime cost was an aberration caused by 104 retirements, departures and firings, a number double the usual attrition rate.
McLaughlin told Stanek that he needs to do a better job with staffing, saying, "That's your job to manage it."
When McLaughlin pressed him about the accuracy of his numbers during the meeting, Stanek's tone sharpened as he told the commissioner that he had discussed his budget with all board members "with the exception of yourself, who didn't return my phone calls."
In response, McLaughlin pointed out that he did meet with Stanek, but not in the past four days, when he was out of town.
Stanek responded with, "So noted."
Asked to elaborate about his budget after the meeting, Stanek initially said he was "not interested," although he went on to say that he believes all of the commissioners understand his budget "except one."
Of his exchange with McLaughlin, Stanek said, "I answered his question. It's called setting the record straight."
During the meeting, County Budget Director Dave Lawless said having so many unfilled positions is unusual. He said most county departments have "some level" of vacancies, but that they're usually "transitional," not long-term like Stanek's.