DeKalb sheriff: Early retirements will leave jail understaffed

A mass exodus of DeKalb County employees who are taking early retirement will leave the county jail understaffed and possibly unsafe, the sheriff says.

As of Wednesday, 76 Sheriff’s Office employees -- more than 9 percent of the 828 people on its staff -- had signed up to retire next month. That’s more than any other county department, sheriff’s spokeswoman Mikki Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

DeKalb offered the early retirement program as a cost savings to help with a $100 million shortfall in this year’s budget. County commissioners said that if less than 550 workers took the buyout, layoffs would follow.

Commissioner Larry Johnson said he expects the county to reach 550 by the April 15 deadline. As of Wednesday, 509 workers had taken the package, said Shelia Edwards, a spokeswoman for the county CEO.

Seventy-one of those employees are in the Police Department and 63 are in the Fire Department, Edwards said.

Despite the large number of public safety employees retiring, Johnson said he is working with the CEO’s staff on a way to allow the county to shrink staff without disrupting public safety.

“We’re not going to compromise on public safety,” he said.

But to Sheriff Thomas Brown, the plan needs to happen now. With a growing jail population and a budget smaller than last year’s, the sheriff said he can’t afford to lose any staff.

For the Sheriff’s Office, many of the retirees are in the upper ranks, including three of the four majors, several lieutenants and most of the sergeants.

“We’re anticipating that every single sergeant, which is our first level of supervision in the jail, will be brand-new,” Brown told the County Commission. “That a lot of inexperience that we have to work with.”

Even before the retirements, the jail is already understaffed. A 2004 study said the jail should have 527 employees -- from detention officers up to director. As of Thursday, the jail had only 497 employees, Jones said.

This week, the jail reached maximum capacity at 3,297 inmates.

To help accommodate the large population, the jail is now installing second bunks in each of the 96 maximum-security cells, which are meant to house only one inmate. The extra bunks are costing the county $48,000.

That means that the detention officers will have to watch the inmates even closer and likely will need to rely on overtime, Jones said.

The jail is hoping the state Department of Corrections will free up some of those beds. As of Wednesday, 286 of the inmates had already had their cases adjudicated and were waiting for the state to transport them to a state prison, Jones said.

It’s unclear why the state has not picked up these prisoners. A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections did not respond to questions Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Brown asked commissioners whether he could temporarily contract some of his retiring officers until the new supervisors are fully trained. The commission is still reviewing that request, but it could be problematic paying retirees a pension and part-time pay, officials said.

Johnson said the commission will meet April 16 with the sheriff and other officials to discuss how to keep county services running with less staff.

“We just have to work with the budget we’re faced with,” he said.