Marion Co. Sheriff shares staffing, pay concerns during 2021 Budget Presentation

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INDIANAPOLIS – The Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is asking the City-County Council to consider an increase of $661,000 in funding as it prepares to begin planning for next year’s budget.

On Wednesday, Sheriff Kerry Forestal went before the City-County Council at the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee meeting to explain the department’s 2021 Budget Presentation.

Forestal said, despite a huge push to recruit, the MCSO is at a staffing shortfall when it comes to the number of deputies on the department, much of which is being attributed to low entry-level pay.

In the jail, there are currently 369 deputies, with 138 vacancies needing to be filled. In the Judicial Enforcement, or courthouse division, there are currently 145, with 43 positions to fill. In Communications, or the 911 center, there are 142, with a 25-person deficit.

“This is the shortfall we have presently, although we’ve had a huge push, again, for recruitment,” said Forestal.

As preparations to open the new Community Justice Campus (CJC) continue, courts will move about three miles to the location on the city’s southeast side.

Forestal said although the CJC is about eight months from opening, it needs to be addressed whether deputy sheriffs will continue providing the security at the City County Building (CCB) because otherwise, “that group of deputies would move to the new courthouse,” he said.

If it is decided deputies will still man security at the CCB, Forestal said they will need to look to hiring more people, as they already struggle to fill the vacancies they have.

The sheriff said the MCSO has trouble competing against departments offering a much greater starting salary for deputies.

“We’ve had months and months of very aggressive marketing, but the most common response was, ‘I’m not working for that kind of money,’” he said.

Forestal said the $661,000 figure he requested is the amount it would cost to raise the salary for deputies who have less than four years with the MSCO, by $5,000. This would increase their pay to $42,000, which Forestal said is even still lower than many other agencies offer.

“We need a better entry-level to compete in this market,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re spending dollars to train people to send them to the surrounding agencies.”

City-County Councillor and Chairman of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, Leroy Robinson said, he heard the sheriff’s requests loud and clear on Wednesday.

“We know there’s a shortage over there with the staff, we know that folks are purging from his agency to other outside sheriff’s departments for more money,” said Robinson.

He shared; however, it isn’t as simple as making a choice on the spot whether more funds will be allocated to a certain department. This is just the beginning of discussions that will take place over the next several months as they prepare for the 2022 budget.

“Every budgetary year and cycle, we hear from these agencies who want more funding for their budgets number one, and they also all have issues with their salaries for their staffing, which are legitimate,” said Robinson. “We have to look at the overall budget. We don’t look at just one entity, one agency. We look at the overall health of the city and have to balance it with other agencies.”

Right now, the MCSO said it is paying a significant amount of overtime to its deputies to make up for the staffing shortfalls.

“During the budget time we see that they spend a lot of money on overtime, a lot of money spent on overtime personnel, working lots of hours,” said Leroy. “The thought was, over the years, how can we refigure their budget and look at how can we take that overtime money and hire new officers?”

This year, the MSCO has paid out $878,000 in overtime.

“The ask we have for the increase is actually less than the amount of overtime that we’ve spent this year,” said Forestal. “So, I think that’s a fiscally responsible thing to do.”

He said it takes seven years for a sheriff’s deputy to reach a salary of $48,000. He hopes that if the pay for sheriff’s deputies in their first four years is approved and increases to $42,000, that there will be more incentive for people to come out and apply.

Forestal believes by investing on the front end with salary, they can help reduce things on the back end when it comes to paying out overtime to make up for lack of staffing.

Deputy Chief Tanesha Crear, Jail Division Commander, said with the critical staffing levels, there is a ‘tremendous’ workload on staff. She said, “We cannot begin a shift here at the jail — we cannot begin a shift in our processing environment — without overtime.”

Forestal said, one more concern related to staffing levels is quickly approaching as Marion County moves its jury trials back to the CCB from Traffic Court in early April.

“We have to have people upstairs [courts] but that’s getting very tight now, and that’s during COVID time,” he said. “A year ago, we had 110 people waiting to go to trial on murder, now we have 175,” Forestal said.

“We’re tremendously worried about security in the court,” said Colonel James Martin. “Staffing numbers are getting to the point where we are having a hard time staffing all of our stations at the City-County building.”

Forestal said he worries if the county tries to run two courts simultaneously, they will not have the staffing availability to provide the number of deputies they need.

“Nobody wants a judge sitting in there without deputy sheriffs in there while the trial’s going on for murder,” said Forestal.

“What’s it gonna take to get these deputies raises?” I see numbers but I think they need to be more substantial,” said City-County Councillor, Frank Mascari with District 21.

“We spent $600 million on a new criminal justice center and we need to fund the sheriff’s department the best we can, so somebody better really truly need to sharpen their pencils and find some more money,” he said.

Robinson said the City-County Council will consider the information provided by Forestal, along with the presentations given by other agencies including the Marion County Public Defender Agency, Prosecutor’s Office, EMS, Coroner, and more, who also have presented to the members.

With concerns over the budget as the county begins to see the economic shortfall as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic expected this coming budgeting season, Robinson said the budget will likely be tight.

“We’re just really underfunded as a city agency,” he said. “The funds are low, and we just really can’t compete with the private sector, so I would say that every single agency in our enterprise is underfunded, so not just the sheriff’s department.”

“People before COVID and civil unrest didn’t like the salaries at $37,000 and it’s been even more difficult now,” Forestal said.

The MCSO said it encourages anyone interested in applying for a position with the department to visit its website for more information.

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