Sheriff, probation departments ask county for relief

County supervisors agree to increase staffing, worry about setting precedent

The Mono County Board of Supervisors hit up against the slippery slope argument this past Tuesday when officials from the Sheriff’s Department and the Probation Department asked for an increase in staffing and an increase in job classification and/or promotion opportunities for certain positions.

Although the two items came up independent of one another, and although the money for the changes comes from a new state fund, at least two board members were wary of setting a precedent that might be hard to sustain in an era of diminishing budgets.

“It’s not about the need,” said Supervisor Larry Johnston. “That could be very valid and I am not arguing about the value of your employees, or the work they do. But things change incrementally, if we don’t watch it. We address this position by position, budget by budget, and it’s soon possible we might be giving special privileges to a group and then other employees will want it. Right now, I can’t support it.”

Johnston was joined by Supervisor Tim Fesko (who said he too, was worried about what he called “salary creep”) resulting in a series of 3-2 votes on allowing employees to be reclassified, which would mean a higher salary, in these cases.

The issue at the Sheriff’s Department was a request by Sheriff Ralph Obenberger to add a new Public Safety Officer to his staff and to change the supervising rank structure at the county jail to allow more classifications for employees that are now taking on more responsibilities, as well as to reclassify an administrative position at the office.

All of these are needed, Obenberger said, because the duties of all the employees involved have increased exponentially due to the state’s “realignment”program—a move to send more state prisoners to county jail versus sending them to the state prisons.

“We have the rank stopping at sergeant at the jail,” he said. “The jail has as much risk to the county as the department patrol force … and now the duties of the supervisors there have drastically increased, in terms of what they have to know and have to do under AB 109. If we miss something, we can get sued. There are already such lawsuits pending in other counties.”

In the case of the county’s Probation Department requests—for a new position and to allow an existing employee an opportunity for promotion (again, covered by AB109 money)—the supervisors split on the promotion, with the same 3-2 vote for the same reasons.

They did, however vote unanimously to approve the new position, citing the county’s legal mandate to take care of all probation issues.

“It’s egregious that the probation officers have not been in the community for so long,” said Chief of Probation Karen Humiston. “This is not so much an addition, as that we are putting things right in doing something that has not been done for many years.”

She said the case load right now for case workers is sometimes double or even more what the recommended average case load is, leaving case workers almost no time to be in the field and contributing to a department mentality that she called a “fortress” attitude.

She also noted that some of the increase in the workload is due to a decrease in staffing at the Mammoth Lakes Police Department, prompting more resistance from Johnston.

Johnston and Fesko said they understood the needs both departments were trying to address were likely valid.

“But it’s that these decisions, I think, be part of the larger budget decision (budget hearings begin in late summer), otherwise, we will have lots of people asking for something similar, and it will be become a procedure,” Fesko said.