The Rock County Sheriff’s Office is keeping its patrol shifts fully staffed as it works to fill 10 vacant positions and pays overtime exceeding $1 million a year.
The overtime and the vacancies aren’t necessarily related, Chief Deputy Barb Tillman said, but the sheriff’s office has found it harder in recent years to recruit new deputies.
Tillman said she sees no ill effects such as burnout from the overtime or from handling duties represented by those vacant positions.
Six of the vacancies are end-of-the-year retirements. The other four are in court services, the ID bureau and a recreational safety deputy.
People are not being transferred into those positions to keep the patrol shifts staffed, Tillman said.
As of Friday, the 14 first-shift patrol positions were filled, as were the 15 on second shift.
Third shift, which normally has 12 deputies, has 11, but one new deputy now in field training will likely fill that slot, Tillman said.
Meanwhile, three recruits started police academy training at Blackhawk Technical College today, and another—and maybe a few more—will join the academy Jan. 28.
Recruits go through 17 weeks of academy and then 15 weeks of field training before they can patrol on their own, so Tillman said they won’t help with staffing before Labor Day.
Several new recruits won’t need the training. They are already certified law enforcement officers.
A recent change in the union contract allows the hiring of already-certified officers at pay steps reflecting two to four years of experience, Tillman said.
“We have lined people up to fill the slots,” Tillman said.
But law enforcement agencies everywhere are seeing fewer candidates, Tillman said, which has made it difficult to keep up with losses to retirement or employees taking jobs elsewhere.
The strong job market is one reason, Tillman said. She remembers 100s of applicants for positions many years ago. Just 25 applied in the sheriff’s office last go-around, she said.
And Tillman suspects the image of law enforcement, tarnished in recent years by highly publicized events around the country, could be keeping young people from choosing law enforcement as a career.
Tillman said the sheriff’s office is reaching out with its new Explorer scouting program to expose young people to the profession, and she encourages deputies to put in a good word with young people they know.
Deputies, meanwhile, have for years been working hours that exceed the overtime budget approved by the county board. Dollars allotted to vacant positions have paid for the overtime, and in some years the sheriff’s office has exceeded its overall budget, now about $22 million, Tillman said.
This year, the county board authorized an increase in overtime expenses. At the same time, the county administration is asking for more information about the reasons for overtime.
County Administrator Josh Smith said the sheriff’s office is not the only department where this adjustment was made to more accurately reflect how money is being spent—both for budget planners and for the public.
Tillman said one big use of overtime is for guarding inmates or just-arrested people at local hospitals. The inmate population has many more medical problems than in the past, some caused by drug abuse, sometimes because of the need for dialysis or chemotherapy or treatments for other ailments, Tillman said.
Waiting at the emergency room for injured people who are arrested can take hours, Tillman said. The same goes for people in severe mental health crises who must be medically evaluated before being placed in jail or a mental-health facilities.
Those needing mental-health treatment and facing charges are often taken to Winnebago Mental Health, a five-hour round trip that requires two deputies, Tillman said.
Deputies are regularly asked to volunteer for hospital guard duty or mental-health transports, Tillman said.
Also pushing up the overtime numbers are officers out sick, taking family and medical leave or whose work injuries keep them at home or on light duty, Tillman said.
As for the vacant positions, supervisors are doing more hands-on work until those positions are filled. A captain and sergeant in court services are transporting inmates to and from the courthouse, for example.
“We’ve kind of adopted an all-hands-on-deck philosophy to get us through” until more recruits can complete training and end the short-term vacancy problem, she said.
Tillman said as more is asked of supervisors, it’s her job to keep communications open to make sure that all that needs to be done is getting done.
A long-term solution to overtime might be more deputies and more correctional officers because overtime at the jail has been high. But Tillman said it’s too early to talk about that.
The county last year compared staffing levels to six comparable counties. They found Rock County near average in staffing, both for deputies and correctional officers.
Decision-makers need better data on the reasons for overtime, Tillman said. Until now, it’s been impossible for administrators to know that overtime was for a mental-health transport or hospital guard duty, for example.
Tillman has just approved a new overtime-reporting form that will require more specific reasons.
“In the future, we can take this new overtime information and see if we need to discuss staffing at budget time,” Tillman said.
With all this going on, Tillman is adamant that public safety is not affected.
“When you call and you need a deputy sheriff to respond for an emergency or call for service, we have the personnel to do that,” Tillman said.
But she also said it’s common for a deputy to handle an emergency mental-health case at 7 p.m. and sit at the hospital until 2 a.m., even though the shift ends at 11 p.m. Then it’s another five hours if the person needs to be taken to Winnebago Mental Health, and the deputy finally goes home at 7 a.m.
That deputy has enough time to sleep and get to the start of the next shift at 2:30 p.m.
The pending closure of Milton High School’s 55-year-old pool is not a ploy to pass a referendum, district officials say.
The timing is unfortunate, but the pool’s problems “should come as a surprise to no one,” Superintendent Tim Schigur told The Gazette.
The district announced last week the pool will close March 1—or sooner if its HVAC system gives out before then.
While the flagging system expedited the pool’s pending closure, a report by Ramaker and Associates released last spring identified a raft of problems the pool would need to address within five years that, if left untouched, might’ve resulted in the pool closing anyway.
The report, officials say, is the most recent indicator of pool needs after nearly a decade of concern for the facility.
If a $59.9 million referendum passes in April, the district will build a new pool, but it would take a few years to build, Schigur said.
The district could repair the current pool to bridge the gap, but planning would have to start now to get the pool operational for next school year, Schigur said.
The current pool would be refurbished into new space as part of the referendum, meaning the HVAC system and other fixes would have to happen no matter what. They are already budgeted for in the referendum plan.
If the referendum does not pass, the board will have to find another way to pay for an estimated $1.2 million in repairs to squeeze another five to 10 years of operation out of the pool, according to the report.
The Gazette asked district administrators to further explain the pool’s pending closure:
How is the HVAC system broken? Bearings inside the system are getting noisier by the day, a sign they are reaching the end of their lives, Schigur said.
Air vents are “seizing up” and degrading from corrosion. Cables that open and shut vents to adjust air flow have almost entirely corroded, meaning the vents do not work on their own, Schigur said.
Maintenance staff has been manually opening and closing vents multiple times a day, Schigur said.
When the school was built in 1963, the HVAC system was placed and then walls went up around it, Schigur said.
Surrounding walls would have to come down to access and replace the system, Schigur said.
Can the pool stay open if the HVAC system is the only fix the district makes? The Ramaker report estimated HVAC replacement would cost $167,000.
The district is determining the bare minimum fixes needed to keep the pool open and is expected to present them to the school board Monday, Schigur said.
While the HVAC system is a primary concern, other needs have to be met to keep the pool running.
In May 2018, the Rock County Public Health Department noted two violations at the pool during a routine check.
The first was for gutters not effectively skimming water; the second was for frayed and inadequate rope on a buoy, according to department documents.
The district has to show the county that actions have been taken to address the violations within one year. Administrators are now determining what fixes have to be done to address the issues and at what cost, Schigur said.
If the district fixes only the HVAC system, other problems listed in the Ramaker report could eventually force the pool to close, Schigur said.
The district performed a study in 2008 that indicated the pool needed major repairs, according to previous Gazette reporting.
“I think everybody can say the pool has been well maintained and serviced. But without significant money put into it, it’s nearing the end of its useful expected life,” then-Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said.
Current administrators have echoed what Nikolay said 10 years ago.
Results from a 2011 survey showed the community was split on whether to build a new pool, which would have been done in conjunction with the Parker YMCA.
Director of Admi- nistrative Operations Jerry Schuetz said the district’s last two referendums would have solved the pool’s problems, but residents voted down those questions for various reasons.
Past school boards decided not to pour money into the current pool because the community might still want to build new, Schuetz said.
Janesville School Board Clerk Steve Huth has done the math: About 95 percent of school districts in Wisconsin pay their board members something, from the $15 members make per meeting in Whitewater to the $18,677 annual salary members earn in Milwaukee.
But Janesville has never paid city council members or school board members.
“That’s been the tradition in Janesville,” Huth said.
Pending the results of a study into the matter, the school board could soon consider a change. It voted 7-2 on Tuesday to have Huth and board Vice President Cathy Myers conduct the study. Both stressed doing the study doesn’t necessarily mean the district will eventually start paying board members.
“That’s putting the cart way before the horse,” Huth said.
Board members Karl Dommershausen and Dale Thompson proposed the study at a meeting last month.
Dommershausen argued the lack of compensation means some people, such as single parents or those who work second shift, might not be able to afford to serve on the school board. Paying members could help cover child-care costs or lost wages.
That, in turn, might expand the pool of candidates for office, Dommershausen and other board members argued.
The upcoming spring school board election will have five candidates, all incumbents, for five seats.
Dommershausen, who is partially retired, has a second-shift job. He has long been involved in educational boards at the local and state level and has served on the Rock County Board, but when attending a night meeting means missing a shift, he loses the income.
Huth and Myers will spend at least six weeks quantifying how much work goes into being a board member, including how many meetings members attend and how much time they spend on board work at home.
Myers was surprised by the number of districts, even very small ones, that pay their board members.
“I’m impressed that their budgets can handle it, but they’re the ones who have to decide what to do with their money,” Myers said. “That doesn’t mean that it will be right for us.”
Districts approach paying their board members in a variety of ways, including:
Salary and stipend amounts vary district by district. Members make $50 a year in Arcadia while their counterparts in Milwaukee earn $18,677. Per-meeting stipends range from $15 in Whitewater to $300 in the Northland Pines School District.
Does the pay increase the number of people who run for office?
That’s difficult to say.
When The Gazette looked at recent elections in cities of comparable population and district enrollment, it was unclear from such a small sampling. Waukesha pays all its board members $6,400. In that city, there were more candidates than open school board seats in four of the last five elections.
Sun Prairie, where there were more candidates than open school board seats in three of the last five elections, pays its board members $5,000. Its board president receives $6,000. In Janesville, there were more candidates than open seats in three of the last five elections. In April, only five current board members will be running for their five seats.
Board members have said they would be opposed to granting themselves a pay increase. If a proposal to pay members was approved, it would have to go into effect in the future. Dommershausen proposed waiting three election cycles.
That would make it so that after the election this spring, a board member would have to win a new term before any approved compensation plan would take effect.
In a written statement, Dommershausen addressed some of the other questions surrounding pay. Board members, he wrote, would have the option of turning down pay or donating their pay to a cause of their choice. In the past, laws have made it impossible to turn down a salary without having to pay a tax penalty. That is no longer the case, Dommershausen said.
Kenneth Burton Guernsey
Jessica J. Kroll-Peciulis
Robert S. Morgan