Commission denies sheriff's request for sergeant slot

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Despite having the money in his budget, county commissioners rejected Valencia County Sheriff Louis Burkhard's request to add a sergeant's position to the courthouse security division his department oversees.

Burkhard said the seven court security officers don't have a first-line supervisor. A lieutenant oversees the division, but has other civil process duties to handle, he said, and isn't able to be at the courthouse all the time.

"Not having a supervisor there creates a lot of personnel issues. There's no one to see if they are showing up for work on time, ready to go," Burkhard said. "We have a liability in not having a supervisor and (county attorney) Mr. (Adren) Nance could back me up on that. We have spent a ton of man hours investigating issues. It's not cost effective. We need to get a supervisor on the floor."

Burkhard said the position would be paid from a combination of funds — about $33,000 in salary savings from other positions in his department and another $23,000 from an unfilled court security position. He said the sergeant's position would take $45,580, representing a $11,322 in salary savings in his budget.

Commissioner Alicia Aguilar asked if one of the seven security officers could be made a sergeant. Burkhard said they were not sworn certified officers and only had enforcement power at the courthouse. Aguilar asked if he needed seven officers.

"Yes, we also do prisoner transport all over the state — Hobbs, Grants, Santa Rosa," the sheriff responded. "If we have no transports, there may be one or two more officers there."

Aguilar asked why the sergeant position wasn't originally in the budget. Burkhard said after further evaluation of the situation, he determined it was needed.

"The chief judge (William Sanchez) requested somebody be available," he said. "I did have one unfilled security position in the budget."

Saying she appreciated the need and that she did not speak for the other commissioners, Aguilar said there have been unbudgeted items brought before them recently.

"There are other expenses that are critical, and I'm not saying yours isn't, but until I am able to see a budget update and where we are at, I'm not willing to move forward on this," Aguilar said.

The lack of a sergeant is a "large liability," the sheriff said. "Without having supervision, we have been running on luck for years. We are seeing occurrences across the country where judges and court officers are being shot. This is a real issue we need to address."

Aguilar said she saw the need but reiterated that her preference was to wait until the commissioners received a budget update before acting on his request.

Commissioner Mary Andersen said she had questions and concerns about the sheriff's request, but had spoken to him before the meeting.

"He has given us the numbers, he has the money to cover the position," Andersen said. "The liabilities the sheriff has talked about are really kind of drastic. People can get hurt, we can be sued because someone mistreated someone by not following the rules. We need that solid trained man who makes sure of that.

"Everyone who goes in and out of that building, with the exception of staff and security, has issues. They come in agonizing over something and emotions are close to the surface."

Burkhard agreed, saying courthouses are volatile places.

"You have divorces, custody issues, criminals being sentenced. It's a lot bigger than just having some security guards at Walmart," he said. "We have been riding on luck for several years. I don't want to put the county into a bad position."

Andersen said that Judge Sanchez doesn't make requests of the commission very often.

"He wouldn't ask this if it didn't have to be done," she said.

Commissioner Lawrence Romero said he also was concerned about the budget and had met with the sheriff before the meeting.

"He showed me where he could cut some spending in his department. I think even though we have some issues coming up, it is too important to not have a certified officer in the courthouse at all times," Romero said.

He then made a motion to approve Burkhard's request and urged the commissioners to look at it as a safety issue. Andersen seconded.

Since he was taking salary savings and combining those with funds for an open position, Commission Chairman Charles Eaton asked Burkhard if he would be asking for two positions back next fiscal year.

Burkhard said he wasn't losing positions but rather gaining a supervisor and somebody on the floor.

Eaton began questioning Burkhard, pitting the number of court security officers against deputy response times to emergency calls.

"The only thing that concerns me, and baffles me," Eaton said, "is you have seven officers and, at times, there are only two security guards at the courthouse.

"Now you're saying you may have eight over there," Eaton said. "When I've been over there, sometimes there is only one court session going on. Yet I have citizens calling . . . telling me there are three officers on patrol and there is a several hour wait."

Burkhard said there were five deputies out on patrol per shift, not three.

"I think those situations where there is a long wait are rare if our officers are on other calls," he said. "And we should never be down to only three guys out in the field working. I hold my supervisors responsible to make sure every shift is fully staffed."

Eaton countered that there were violent crimes happening in the county, long waits for response and "you have eight guys in the courthouse."

The sheriff called that comparison apples and oranges.

"These are not law enforcement officers. They can't go out and answer calls," he said.

Eaton said it was "still the same criminal element coming through the doors (of the courthouse) that the guys on the streets handle."

Aguilar said departments keep coming to the commission asking for changes after the budget is set and said she would be more comfortable holding off on a decision for 30 days.

"We keep approving unbudgeted items and eventually that becomes a big ticket," she said.

Burkhard said he has not asked for more deputies since he took office in 2011. The one deputy added in his department was paid for through a grant, he noted.

Andersen pointed out that the uncertified security officers actually cost the county less than sworn, certified deputies.

"If we had to put certified officers there, that's the difference between $11 per hour and $17 an hour. I understand the concerns about creep in the budget," Andersen said. "We are charged with protecting people of the county. This is as essential as the fire department and detention. In other departments, if we don't get this one tax bill posted today it will keep until tomorrow. This won't."

The final vote was Andersen and Romero in favor and Eaton, Aguilar and Commissioner Jhonathan Aragon against.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.