Friday, November 28, 2008

BooHoo

Having worked there for so long and loved it so much, I still watch the Sheriff's Department with a somewhat interested eye. Not as much as I used to. There was a time when I had a scanner in my bedroom and one in the dining room near the computer and they chattered day and night. I remained caught up in wanting to know that my guys were okay out there and what was going on in the county, even after I was fired. The scanners are turned off now. These days I hear things through the ex-employee's grapevine or read them in the newspaper, days, or even weeks after they occur. Not being able to let go, of a still-loved previous job or ex-spouse, does your mental health no good whatsoever. Better to put it behind you and get on with your life, which is what I finally did.

So I have followed the great sheriff's pay controversy with only the mild amusement of the formerly involved. Wabash County was one of the last to convert to paying the sheriff a straight salary instead of a salary plus a cut of the meal money allocated by the state to feed inmates. The Department of Corrections pays a certain amount per meal for each prisoner. As I recall, it was $1.83 when I worked at the department. If, for instance, the Sheriff could prepare a meal for $1.00, he made 83 cents on that meal. Multiply that by however many inmates were in the jail for three meals a day times 30 or 31 days per month and it added up to a considerable sum. When Tim was Sheriff, he made a little over $100,000 annually, of which only $27,770 was salary. (And it was always $27,770 because in the eight years he was sheriff, he never asked for a raise for himself).

Like so many other situations, how successful this method of feeding inmates was depended on the administration of it. When I worked at WSD, the meals were pretty good, not like eating at Market Street Grill three times a day, but decent. Employees usually took a tray themselves and they were a bargain for $1 (which is what we paid after our employee's discount). The matron under the current sheriff also prepared more-than-acceptable food. However, I've been to jails where lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a small square of jello. I don't know what the base cost is for feeding someone a p&b sandwich and a square inch of lime jello but it probably isn't anywhere close to $1.83 or whatever the state pays now.

On the other hand, what incentive does the matron have to be frugal about buying supplies when the savings goes back to the county instead of to the sheriff to whom she owes her job?

That was the dilemma and Wabash County preferred to just let things ride along as they had in the past....until the state stepped in and said all counties had to switch to paying sheriffs a salary. And that's when the great battle began. What was that salary to be? That was the question. The Sheriff himself thought $125,000 was what was fair, which would have made him the highest paid county employee (as he was already was under the meal money system, collecting something like $127,000 total in 2007). Some on the Counsel thought his wages should come closer to matching what judges and prosecutors and chief probation officers made. In the end, there was a vote and they set the Sheriff's salary at a measly, piddly, barely-able-to-survive-on $80,000. From what I've read and been told, the sheriff was livid.

The County Counsel president was upset as well, believing an unfairness had been done to the Sheriff, who was counting on that $125,000 to feed his family, make his house payment, send his kids of college, whatever..... This would be the counsel president who probably should have recused himself from the vote since his wife is employed by the sheriff, although in a county the size of Wabash, conflicts of interest abound. If everyone steps aside from decisions involving someone they know, no actual business would ever get done, so let's give him a pass on that. As a still slightly disgruntled former employee, I admit to a bit of a bias myself - in the opposite direction.

What I wonder is how many Wabash County citizens have sympathy for a man who is going to have to try to live on only $80,000 instead of $125,000 (and if she's still employed there, that doesn't include whatever his wife earns from her job as a field agent for the Work Release Program, another Sheriff's Department-related position)? And that's $80,000 paid out of their tax money, maybe on, say, wages of $30,000, not by an impersonal corporate entity with a headquarters in Timbuctoo. In this time of economic panic, when people are losing their jobs and their homes, and in a county where wages don't keep pace with those in larger metropolitan areas anyway, I wonder how many people will read the newspaper account of the sheriff's salary negotiations and think they'd feel damned lucky to bring home an $80,000 a year paycheck? I know I would.