Several employees of the Clay County Sheriff's Dept. have quit during the past few months, which creates the loss of highly valuable resources to the department, experienced employees.
With a limited county budget not allowing adequate pay raises in the past or any in the foreseeable future, the department finds itself unable to compete with higher-paying jobs and better benefit packages available at other law enforcement agencies.
"I fully understand that the county budget is strapped and I don't fault anyone for making a decision that betters theirs and their family's lives," Sheriff Mike Heaton said. "We have an excellent group of people that work here, but we are a small department with limited resources. Any time we lose someone with experience it hurts."
Since the beginning of the year, more than 10 experienced employees, including deputies and jail personnel, have left the department and more are considering other job options.
Recently, Doug Barr resigned from his job as chief deputy to take a supervisory position with the Indiana Gaming Commission.
"I thoroughly enjoyed my time and believed in what I was doing with the Clay County Sheriff's Dept.," Barr said. "But an opportunity with benefits that are not available at the department came available to me that, at 48-years-old, I just couldn't pass up."
According to his replacement, Chief Deputy Rob Gambill, Barr's departure leaves a hole in the department.
"This is a big honor, but I have some big shoes to fill," Gambill said Wednesday. "Doug is leaving with five years of experience and training as a deputy, He's a training instructor in the department and has years of business management experience. That type of experience is invaluable in a small department like this."
If the employee turnover continues or gets worse, Heaton and Gambill agree the department could suffer.
With the taxpayers footing the bill, Heaton says the department cannot afford to continually train a rotating door of new officers that will use the training and entry-level experience as a springboard for better-paying jobs in other law enforcement agencies.
"A deputy hires in to our department with a beginning salary of $28,000 while a state trooper trainee, who's still in academy, starts out at $36,000. A first year trooper, after academy, makes $40,100," Heaton said. "With salaries as they are now, no deputy in the department will ever make more than that."
Low salaries also make it difficult to acquire qualified people who might not need to go through as much training as an officer just entering their law enforcement career.
"Qualified people are just not interested in applying at the department because the salary is too low," Gambill said. "It's a costly process to hire a deputy. Then there is all the money and time that is put into training a new deputy. It is hard for a little department like ours to keep doing that over and over again. We are becoming a training agency for other departments."
"It's like winning the jackpot when one of our officers leaves and goes to another department," Heaton said in agreement. "We not only lose a qualified officer, but we lose all their knowledge of past case histories and their relationship with the community."
According to Barr, part of the problem could be linked to a misunderstanding of the job description of a law enforcement officer.
"I don't think people truly realize what it means to be a deputy, to be in law enforcement," he said. "This is a reactive job. You work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When you're home, you're not really off duty. You have to go if you're called. In a minute's notice life changes, and we don't hesitate, we go. These people are not here for the money, it's because they believe in the job they are doing. How do you compensate someone for that level of dedication?"
Clay County Council President Mike McCullough knew that some personnel had recently left the department, but didn't understand the seriousness of the problem.
"I hate that the department is losing people, especially the deputies," McCullough said. "But there is only so much county funds available for use."
The council compares the local budget with at least 10 other counties of similar size and population during budget preparation to ensure it is on track. McCullough said the council tries to maintain the equipment needs of the deputies, the local department, the jail and hiring the people needed to run it, but, with so many experienced people leaving, the council needs to have a serious discussion about the problem.
"There are times when the county is just not in a position to match what other counties are doing with their budgets," he said. "With the budget hearings starting in September, we will have a serious discussion about deputy loss with the sheriff and try to come up with a possible solution to the problem."