Deputies say it's a safety issue, but the sheriff says it's all about money.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Deputy sheriffs say a staffing shortage has created a dangerous situation at the Mahoning County Jail.
They lodged a complaint Thursday with Sheriff Randall Wellington, asking him to address the situation immediately before a staff member or inmate is hurt or killed.
But Wellington said the real issue behind the complaint is money, not safety. He said deputies are disgruntled about his recent order to stop all paid overtime, including for deputies who stay to cover staffing shortages in the jail.
The brief complaint, signed by 20 deputies who work in the jail, said the day shift was forced to work with 25 deputies. It does not say how many were at the main jail and how many were at the minimum-security jail across the street.
The complaint said there were enough officers for one to be assigned to each inmate pod and cover other mandatory posts at the jail, but only one "float" deputy to respond to emergencies, such as a fight among inmates or a deputy's being attacked by inmates.
"This not only puts deputies in severe danger, it also puts the medical staff, Community Corrections Association personnel, kitchen staff and the inmates in danger," the complaint says.
Wellington said the root of the problem is chronic absenteeism among deputies, mostly because they call off sick, leaving vacancies that must be filled on the day shift.
In the past, deputies who had finished a shift had the option of working overtime to cover vacancies on the following shift, being paid time and a half. But since he curbed paid overtime because of budget constraints, deputies have stopped volunteering to cover those spots.
He does allow deputies who work overtime to take time off later as "accumulated time," but not as many staff members use that option.
Wellington said he cut overtime because he wants to make sure he has enough money to finish the year. When county commissioners passed this year's budget, the sheriff's funding was cut some $1.2 million from last year's level.
Commissioners said nearly all offices received budget reductions because of a decline in revenue from county sales taxes.
Jail Warden Alki Santamas said there are usually at least 27 deputies on the day shift, with four of them assigned to staff the minimum-security jail.
The 23 remaining at the main jail are enough to staff the pods and other posts and have four extras available. The extras perform other tasks, such as laundry service or working in the commissary, reception area or records room, Wellington said.
Santamas said there were 35 deputies scheduled for the day shift Thursday. Four were on vacation and six called off sick. Wellington said it's unusual for that many people to call off sick in a day.
"I have challenged the employees to reduce their absenteeism and to each perform more tasks in the secondary responsibility areas," he said. "I guess they don't like that."
Santamas and Wellington said that during times when there aren't enough deputies to staff the jail because of call-offs, they permit inmates to be locked in their cells if there's no one to guard them in the pod. Otherwise, inmates are generally allowed to move freely about a common area in the center of the pod.
Administrative staff is also available to help in emergencies, Santamas said.
Patrick Gallagher, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 141, agreed that absenteeism is a problem, but he said it's because deputies are overworked, and it is often the only way they can take time off.
In the past, if enough deputies did not volunteer to work overtime and cover the vacancies created by call-offs, deputies were recruited and forced to work, Gallagher said. Deputies with the least seniority were ordered to stay.
Wellington said that's true, but he can no longer force deputies to work overtime since he's not paying them.
"It's the sheriff's responsibility to staff the jail," Gallagher said. "Not the deputies'."
Wellington said he had heard no complaints about the staffing issues before receiving the written one Thursday.