Johnson County sheriff’s deputies rack up huge overtime

04/05/2014 5:00 PM

04/05/2014 6:12 PM

You don’t have to live in Johnson County to be shocked over this:

A master deputy in the Johnson County sheriff’s office has received $218,000 in overtime pay from 2010 to 2012. That’s not his salary. That’s just his overtime. His soon-to-be retirement benefits will be based on his total compensation over the past three years, including overtime.

That’s not all. Three other master deputies each made more than $100,000 in overtime in that period. Nine other officers each got more than $80,000 in overtime. Just 13 people received a total of $1.3 million in overtime pay.

This is according to a recently released county internal audit.

County officials say the total overtime pay in 2013 at the sheriff’s office topped $6 million.

The audit points out that overtime is based on a first-come, first-serve basis. Sheriff Frank Denning admits there are “overtime hogs” who gobble up most of the available overtime.

As the audit notes, “ from a management control perspective, there is a weak control environment.”

Denning has a different perspective. He maintains his department has been underfunded for several years. He says he needs more deputies, but the commissioners are holding him back.

Although the sheriff’s position is elected, and he has the right to spend money as he wants, the budget is set by the County Commission.

County Chairman Ed Eilert does not agree that the sheriff is underfunded. He points out that of the 1,087 beds for inmates at the county jail and detention center — which used to be full — the number of inmates is now only about 650, which Denning confirmed. Eilert thinks there should be lower costs from the declining inmate population.

Eilert and several other commissioners are stingy about increasing the sheriff’s budget for other reasons as well.

The audit pointed out the 36 sheriff’s dispatchers who take 911 calls are all expensive deputies in uniform. The audit suggests that civilian dispatchers could do the same job for considerably less. Every city in Johnson County that hires its own dispatchers uses civilian dispatchers, as does Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan.

A check with Overland Park confirms that the starting salary with all benefits, including retirement benefits, for a civilian dispatcher is $41,800 a year. A starting deputy sheriff, with all benefits, makes $55,800 a year.

Denning responds that the county can tell him how much to spend overall but cannot tell him “how to dress his men.” He said it is imperative that his dispatchers be sworn deputies because there is less turnover, and they are better prepared to handle major disasters.

John Douglass, who has been Overland Park’s police chief for 19 years and has spent 41 years on the force, said his civilian dispatchers are every bit as trained for their specific function and as professional as the sheriff’s deputies. He said that his turnover among dispatchers is manageable and that they are fully trained in case of a major disaster.

“To say that a dispatcher needs to be a sworn deputy is like saying you have to be a pilot to be an air traffic controller,” Douglass said.

Eilert has yet another idea to save big bucks in the Sheriff’s Department. He would consider closing the downtown Olathe detention center, where inmates are held for up to 72 hours, and shift them all to the main jail in Gardner, where there are hundreds of empty beds.

“We don’t need two fully operating jails,” Eilert said.

Denning is adamant that a move like that would be folly. He said logistically it just would not work.

Eilert is running for re-election, and has stated adamantly that he thinks the sheriff’s office should remain an elected position.

Denning said he will not be running for a third term, unless, he said, “If I believe it is likely that the next sheriff will compromise the autonomy of that office, I will seek re-election.”

Autonomy is sacrosanct, but so are checks and balances. With the commissioners holding the purse strings, taxpayers can be assured there will be every effort to get their money’s worth and to squeeze out unnecessary spending. As there should be.

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