NOTE: MEETING BOX; MUG OF MARSH
The sheriff’s department and County Attorney’s Office say the plan could hurt public safety.
Pima County Supervisors Chairman Paul Marsh will seek an across-the-board hiring freeze Tuesday that could last one to two years for all Pima County employees, including sheriff’s deputies.
The plan could jeopardize public safety, sheriff’s officials said.
It also drew immediate criticism from the County Attorney’s Office, which said it could hurt efforts to prosecute crimes and collect child support payments.
Marsh estimates the freeze could reduce the county government work force, currently about 6,250 employees, by as much as 800 through attrition in the next two years.
He has unconditional support from fellow Republican Supervisor Ed Moore on the issue. And Republican Mike Boyd favors a three- to four-month hiring freeze with exemptions for the sheriff’s department.
“This is totally outrageous and ridiculous. It’s absurd. Which crimes does Mr. Marsh not want us to stop prosecuting? Child molestation, armed robberies, kidnapping or drug cases?’ asked Barbara LaWall, chief administrative deputy at the County Attorney’s Office.
Sgt. Michael O’Connor said the sheriff’s department should be given an exemption because it provides crime protection.
“If we’re not staffed properly with police officers and support staff, the public safety of Pima County could be greatly diminished,’ he said.
Moreover, the Pima County Jail loses about 50 jailers yearly to attrition. Fewer employees could quickly translate into an “extremely critical situation’ at the jail, O’Connor said.
He also questions how the sheriff’s department could provide adequate coverage if a lot of seasoned deputies retire in the next two years. About 125 of the 350 deputies are eligible to take retirement right now, O’Connor said.
Still, Marsh believes the county could train current employees for the jobs of those who are retiring or quitting. Then once vacancies open, those people would be ready to step in, he said.
“To me, there’s nothing worse than when someone leaves or retires, and someone from the outside is brought in. Morale goes right down,’ he said.
The two Democratic members of the five-member board, Supervisors Dan Eckstrom and Raul Grijalva, said yesterday they would oppose a hiring freeze.
They believe Marsh’s plan is an attempt to mask the fact that the county work force has grown since the Republican majority took over the board in January 1993. Figures from County Administrator Charles Huckelberry show the board authorized 58 new positions between July and December.
“They realize the last two years have been a failure for the Republican majority and now they want to institute a hiring freeze,’ Eckstrom said.
Marsh sees the hiring freeze as a way to help reduce county spending by $45 million for the next budget year, which begins July 1. This year’s budget is $595 million, about $11 million less than the previous year.
But LaWall at the County Attorney’s Office believes politics should be put aside, especially for the sake of crime victims and children in single-parent homes.
“When these positions are left vacant, child support does not get collected for the children of Pima County and investigations don’t get promptly handled and criminals don’t get swiftly prosecuted,’ LaWall said.
The court system is another area that has received waivers from past hiring freezes.
Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael Brown has frequently told the Board of Supervisors that funding for the courts must be boosted to handle increased caseloads. Brown could not be reached for comment last night.
Huckelberry issued a report two weeks ago advising the supervisors that a hiring freeze was unnecessary. Instead, he suggested overhauling the county’s temporary work program.
Last spring, the supervisors imposed a hiring freeze for about three months. The sheriff’s department, courts and the County Attorney’s Office were granted exemptions. The Board of Supervisors put the freeze into effect to prevent a possible shortfall in the general fund balance, Huckelberry said.
If the supervisors approve a hiring freeze, Huckelberry cautioned that the county must be committed to cross-training current staff.
Cross-training was used in 1988 when the development services department had to cut back its staff from about 100 to 60 employees. But not all jobs lend themselves well to cross-training, he said.
“It’s very difficult to cross-train a nurse to be a sheriff’s deputy and vice versa,’ Huckelberry said.
The hiring freeze would not apply to jobs funded entirely through state or federal grants. As long as the outside funding continues, those employees wouldn’t lose their jobs, Marsh said.
A few months ago, the sheriff’s department hired 27 new deputies with funds from a federal grant, O’Connor said.
The supervisors will take up the hiring freeze proposal Tuesday during their weekly meeting. It begins at 9 a.m. in the first-floor hearing room in the Superior Court building, 110 W. Congress St.