Sheriff proposes program to keep employees

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County leaders showed little support Tuesday for a program the sheriff says could cut turnover in his agency.

The Board of Supervisors took Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron’s proposed career development program under advisement at a work session after members reiterated a warning about strict curbs on spending next year. Meanwhile, McEathron said he continues to lose experienced deputies and other personnel to other jurisdictions  that pay more and offer similar programs.

The Sheriff’s Office could fund the program from January through June with about $70,000 in its budget, McEathron said. The proposed program, at about $140,000-$160,000 per year, would cover patrol officers, dispatchers, administrative staff, animal control and investigators, McEathron said.

Happy Creek District Supervisor Tony Carter said the county would need to figure out how to continue to fund the program in future budgets as other departments ask for salary increases and other needs.

McEathron concurred.

“Absolutely and at some point this board’s gotta bite the bullet,” McEathron said. “At some point this board has to support their law enforcement.”

The Sheriff’s Office lost 15 people in the past 2½ years, not including retirements, McEathron said as he presented the draft plan for the program. The sheriff added that he was “OK” with losing three of those employees, noting later that they didn’t meet his agency’s expectations. The core of eight or nine patrol deputies had a collective 60 years of experience in law enforcement that the Sheriff’s Office lost to other jurisdictions, including Front Royal, which hired two of his majors as police chiefs, McEathron said. Front Royal pays more and provides a career-development program, he added. The sheriff said he’s had five majors in his 13 years leading the agency.

The 22 deputies in the Sheriff’s Office average four years of experience, McEathron said. The agency is starting to feel the effects of losing its experienced officers to other jurisdictions, McEathron added. The Board of Supervisors helped his agency by providing enough funding to keep starting salaries competitive. However, McEathron said deputies know they can leave for other departments that offer opportunities to make more money.

“It isn’t that they wanted to go,” McEathron said. “It’s just that they see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

The county conducts studies that lead to higher starting salaries, McEathron said. However, a situation can arise in which a deputy with five years of experience receives pay at the bottom of the scale, he added.

County Administrator Doug Stanley pointed out that the entire locality has become a training ground in various sectors, noting that a building inspector recently left for a higher-level position in Rappahannock County.

“That’s good for them,” Stanley said. “You can’t stop that ebb and flow.”

McEathron acknowledged that the entire county deals with retention problems,

“But again there is no department in this county that requires the certification that my people do,” McEathron said. “You certify them. You train them and they end up leaving. That’s not filling a cubicle. That’s filling a whole lot of experience sitting in a police car making serious decisions.”

The Sheriff’s Office could serve as an example for career development should the county look at a broader effort, McEathron said.

The bigger issue: Funding program if the budget includes no increase in spending, Stanley said.

“I would think this may be a high priority for the board,” Stanley said, adding that supervisors would need to figure out how to fund the commitment in the future.

North River District Supervisor Daniel J. Murray Jr. pointed out that the board laid down the law this past spring with regards to new spending requests from departments. Supervisors also noted that other departments would want similar benefits at a time when the county faces tighter budgets.

Carter thanked McEathron for his presentation but noted that many departments have concerns about funding next year, including fire and rescue. The school system also has lost teachers to other jurisdictions over salaries.

“Unfortunately we can’t compete with other localities down the road,” Carter said.

But funding McEathron’s program could affect funding for outside agencies included in the county’s budget, Murray warned, reminding the sheriff and the board that he would not support any spending increases next year.