Some employees of the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office had plenty to say about their department’s salaries at the June 6 County Board of Supervisors’ meeting. Speaking in Call to the Public, they described how their department is the largest law enforcement agency in the county, but they have the lowest wages. They said the low pay hurts morale, and many deputies and others have left the department for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. This means they have a dangerous situation because of so many inexperienced employees.
There were suggestions that money spent on training new employees would be better spent trying to retain the people they already have.
In response to direct criticism of the Board, District 2 Supervisor Duce Minor, the Board Chairperson, said the county has been run poorly for a long time, and every department is going through a similar situation. He added his appreciated the work law officers do. He said the Board needed to hold a work session on this matter with Sheriff Will Ponce and his staff.
The first to speak was C.J. Markel. He said the department’s pay does not match the stress the employees face. He said he’s researched other counties, and they all pay more than La Paz. He noted that, of the 30 detention officers when he started, only six remain. He said it’s dangerous to have untrained and inexperienced detention officers. He added that increasing salaries would increase morale and employee retention.
Whitney Lopez, a 911 dispatcher, said she has worked for the department for four years. She has seen 10 people leave due to the low pay. She also has to work overtime to make up for employee shortages. She said she makes the same salary as beginning dispatchers, but she’s expected to train them.
If the pay was higher, Lopez said the county would likely not have to spend so much on overtime.
“We are professionals,” she said. “I feel myself and my colleagues should be compensated accordingly.”
Lopez’s husband, Eddie, stated he used to work for the La Paz Sheriff’s Office, but left due to the low pay.
Ricardo Rodriguez said good pay was important for retaining employees. He added that low pay hurts morale and sends deputies and other employees to other departments where they can make more money.
Dispatch Supervisor Maribel Villafana said employees were overworked and underpaid. She said she’s been made offers to work elsewhere, but she is loyal and doesn’t want to work anywhere else.
Christel Merritt spoke from a prepared statement. She said she had been promised a raise, but that raise was lowered from what she was told it would be. She said the Board of Supervisors rejected her pay increase.
Merritt said she feels she and other employees are being taken advantage of. Given how the cost of living has increased in the last year, she said Sheriff’s employees have effectively taken a pay cut on their salaries. She said the stress has her feeling the sense of drowning, and she added she knows there are other jobs in the county that pay more for starting pay than she receives after 12 years at the Sheriff’s Office.
Merritt said this was difficult for her as she’s not the sort of person who complains or makes a fuss.
“I just feel like I need to be transparent on how I am feeling and to stand up for myself on what I think is right and what I deserve,” she said.
After first asking Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney Ryan Dooley if he could respond to criticism of the Board, Minor addressed Merritt directly. He said the Board did not turn down her pay increase. Knowing she would bring it up at the meeting, Minor said he researched it and could not find it on any of the Board’s meetings.
“It was not on any of the previous agendas,” he said.
Minor said the county has been run poorly for a long time, and all departments are expected to do their part to help the financial situation. The Sheriff’s Office was not alone in low wages.
“It’s happening with every department,” Minor said. “We can’t support a budget beyond our means.”
Minor said the Sheriff’s Office has been “top heavy” with management for some time.
Saying he appreciated what law officers do, Minor said he wanted a work session with the Sheriff’s Office to discuss salaries. He added this was the best approach to the matter.
District 3 Supervisor Holly Irwin said she also wanted to hold a work session with the Sheriff.
“My husband is in law enforcement,” she said. “I get it.”
In her events summary, County Administrator Megan Spielman said she would set up a work session with the Sheriff.
Ponce expressed his concern with his department’s low pay in an email to the Parker Pioneer. He said La Paz County cannot compete with other surrounding communities that pay their law officers more. He said he feared the county would soon not have enough deputies to effectively patrol the county, or detention officers to run the jail.
“While we understand the financial struggles the County faces, it cannot be expected that the employees bear the weight of the mismanagement and bad financial decisions the County has made,” Ponce said. “We cannot expect employees to have a sense of loyalty when that loyalty is not reciprocated. Each day we see and hear the frustration from our employees as we continue to ask them to do more with less. In good conscience, I can no longer do this when I know that our county continues to turn a blind eye to the public safety crisis that we are in.”