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Renville County Sheriff seeks to increase number of patrol deputies

According to a report Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable made to the Board of Commissioners, there's an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 law officer vacancies across the state. Hable would like to take advantage of a small window of opportunity to add officers when new graduates enter the job market this spring and summer.

Portrait photo Renville County, Minnesota, Sheriff Scott Hable
Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable
Contributed

OLIVIA — The Renville County Board of Commissioners will be debating whether to approve two new positions for patrol deputies at the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Scott Hable acknowledged that increasing the staff level by two represents a “tremendous ask,” since funding for them is not part of the coming year’s budget.

But he told the commissioners at their meeting on March 15 that the department continues to struggle to fill its schedule in the patrol division. He would like to meet the need for officers while there is possibility of doing so.

The Sheriff’s Office received interest from potential candidates during recent job fairs held for community college students who will graduate from law enforcement programs this spring and summer.

There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 officer vacancies in law enforcement agencies in the state right now, Hable reported.

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The Sheriff’s Office currently lists eight patrol deputies and two sergeants in its patrol division. The department has only two part-time officers to help fill in when officers take vacation or other time off, and it’s not meeting the needs.

For the vast majority of situations, the office has to shift schedules and require officers to work overtime when a deputy needs time off, according to Hable. The sheriff and chief deputy also fill in as schedules are adjusted.

The Sheriff's Office has taken on added responsibilities in recent years. It is contracted to provide patrol services for a total of 140 hours each week to four different communities in the county. It took on the responsibility by adding three deputies, representing 120 hours of time.

Deputies used the equivalent of one full-time equivalent position for personal time off hours in 2021. Hable said there is currently a “liability” of 2.2 full-time equivalent hours if the deputies were to use all of their eligible paid time off.

One of Hable’s concerns is the shrinking number of police officers on duty in the county. Not too many years ago, every community in the county had a police force and officers who would be on duty during nighttime hours.

On most nights, there would be 10 police officers on duty in their respective communities, as well as two, and sometimes three, sheriff’s deputies on patrol.

Now, there are nighttime hours when the only law officers on duty are sheriff’s deputies. There are usually two, but not always.

“There are times (when) just one deputy is rolling around out there, responding sometimes to some very dangerous situations,” Hable told the commissioners. The county spans nearly 1,000 square miles.

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The sheriff said he didn’t want to describe the current situation as a risk to public safety. Even when there is only one officer on duty, he or she is backed up by off-duty officers who would respond to any call for help.

Chief Deputy Jason Mathwig told the commissioners that increasing the staffing would help “watch out for the safety of the public as well as our staff.”

In discussions, the commissioners also noted that additional staffing would benefit the work and life balance employees desire. Vacation requests could more readily be approved, and work schedules would not be disrupted as often as occurs now.

Hable said there has been an explosion in wages for law officers due to the statewide shortage. He pointed to recent job positions offering starting wages in the range of $42 to $45 an hour. A suburb in the metropolitan area is offering $107,000 for an officer with experience.

An officer position in Renville County currently costs $81,951 per year, and will rise to $86,714 in 2023 and $91,093 in 2024. Those numbers include wages, as well as all benefits and other associated costs. The current wage averages $28.28 an hour, according to information presented at the meeting.

While it may seem daunting to recruit new officers when larger departments are offering higher wages, the sheriff and chief deputy expressed optimism. They noted that the potential applicants have ties to the rural county.

Mathwig said the county's recruitment efforts focus on the culture, safe work environment, and the fact that law officers are highly supported in the rural county. “Our staff is not all about money,” he added.

The current staff includes a number of parents with young children, and meeting work and life balance is important, the chief deputy and sheriff said.

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Adding two positions represents a “gamble,” Hable said. “I don’t know the right answer. I am just trying to look out for what’s going to happen a year from now, two years from now. I don’t see this problem getting a lot better,” he said of the shortage of officers.

The Board of Commissioners previously approved a request to increase the staffing level of corrections officers for the county's 72-bed jail from 14 to 16.

Ned Wohlman, jail administrator, said the action has helped, and the jail currently has 15 correction officers. Employee morale has benefited greatly, he told the commissioners.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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