Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday he’s “ringing the alarm” on staffing challenges in every part of his department – from patrol to corrections and dispatch to investigations.

“It’s getting kind of scary,” Warnke said.

The department is bleeding staff who leave to neighboring agencies for better pay and benefits, he said.

The department is short 18 deputies, and 15 are confirmed to be in the background check phase of applications with other agencies, he said. Another eight are out due to injuries or long-term leave.

Patrol is down to seven deputies, he said. If patrol staffing dips to six deputies, that would translate to three patrol cars for 2,000 square miles since Warnke doesn’t want them working alone.

Patrol deputies are only responding to in-progress calls or felony calls within sight. All other calls for service must be reported online, he said.

“I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but the people need to know that when they start calling in the middle of the night,” Warnke said. “That’s what they’re going to have because we’re gonna have one deputy working from Snelling to Atwater to El Nido.”

Because patrol numbers are so low, Warnke has disbanded special units working on gang enforcement and tackling illegal marijuana grows. Warnke said he may be forced to pull deputies from the team that works with the homeless population as well.

“As supervisors, each and every one of you have reached out for help in that area,” Warnke said. “We’re running out. We’ve got nobody else we can put in.”

Warnke told the supervisors he only has eight investigators, about half as many as he needs.

“You all know how passionate I am here. It’s nothing personal,” he said. “The sheriff’s got a job to do, and supervisors have a job to do. We need to get together on this.”

Corrections staff is short by about 30 employees, he said, while also working three mandatory 16-hour shifts a week. Two jail dorms are currently closed because there aren’t enough employees to staff them as some employees assist with construction of the new jail.

Warnke said the staffing situation is reminiscent of 2015, but he worries this time around it will be worse.

This isn’t the first time Warnke has raised the staffing issue this year. In August, he raised similar concerns, along with District Attorney Nicole Silveira. At that time, Warnke said the county “has a hard time recruiting and keeping deputies because wages are low compared to nearby departments.”

Additionally, healthcare costs for county employees recently increased.

Before the public portion of the meeting, the supervisors met in closed session and discussed negotiations with a number of bargaining units, including the unions representing Sheriff’s Office staff. However, the board did not take any action on the negotiations.

Supervisor Lloyd Pareira told the sheriff Tuesday that county officials are getting close to a solution to the healthcare costs.

Supervisors Daron McDaniel and Josh Pedrozo complimented the sheriff and his deputies for their hard work, saying their constituents also provide positive feedback regarding the sheriff’s office.

“We see it happening out there, and we know we have to do something,” McDaniel said.

Brianna Vaccari

Central Valley Journalism Collaborative