By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Dodge County Sheriff Todd Nehls did something he hasn't been able to do in years: hire a dispatcher.
The difference, Nehls said, is Act 10, the controversial bill — now law — pushed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a GOP-controlled Legislature that's delivering big dividends for taxpayers statewide.
But the savings have come at a cost to the morale of corrections officers, dispatchers and law enforcement support services across the state, according to the director of Wisconsin's largest police union.
Nehls, like several other sheriffs surveyed by Wisconsin Reporter, said his department, to date, has realized significant savings.
Act 10, which requires most unionized public-sector employees to contribute more to their health care and pensions and holds wage increases to the rate of inflation, has lowered the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department’s levy, saving taxpayers about $780,000, Nehls said.
While Dodge County isn’t adding to its roster of 70-plus deputies, Nehls said the savings did bolster the dispatch center and has alleviated the need for drastic solutions in trying economic times.
“What I can say is, without the significant savings we’ve experienced, in 2013 and beyond we would be forced to look at other means to reduce costs of providing law enforcement services,” the sheriff, a long-serving Republican, said.
“We had identified a couple of sworn positions that we would have made, if we had to fall on our sabers. But those cuts weren’t required because of the cost savings from the changes in collective bargaining.”
Unlike the many non-sworn fellow law enforcement employees working in support roles, deputies and those who carry guns in the line of duty are not covered under Act 10. The law exempts public safety positions, such as police officers and firefighters.
But Dodge County realized savings through the increased contributions of about half of its sheriff’s department workforce.
The same story is happening in Kenosha County, where the sheriff’s department has realized Act 10-related savings of around $650,000, said Sheriff David Beth.
In austere times, shaped by deep state budget cuts in county aid, Beth said his department’s approximately $35 million budget remained stable in the current fiscal year, and the savings through Act 10 helped shore up shortfalls elsewhere in the county’s budget.
“Basically, it saved taxpayers two-thirds of a million bucks, and the county still is offering the same amount of services,” said Beth, a Republican. “It benefits everyone who pays taxes in Kenosha County, and it has meant no loss on our end.”
Kenosha County's two jails have seen a drastic reduction in extra overtime, from more than 1,000 hours in a comparable pay period two years ago to about 620 hours in a recent pay period at one of the facilities, Beth said. The decline in overtime, he said, has saved Kenosha County taxpayers more than $300,000.
Dean Meyer, executive director of the Badger State Sheriff’s Association, which trains and advocates for all 72 Wisconsin sheriffs departments, said there is no disputing Act 10 savings to county law enforcement, although he said those cost reductions vary based on the structure of departments.
In Dane County, for instance, corrections officers are sworn members of the sheriff’s department, and the dispatch staff works out of another department. The non-sworn workforce is relatively small and will not be affected by changes in collective bargaining until next year, when a new contract comes up, said Travis Myren, Dane County director of administration.
To the south, the Rock County Sheriff’s Department has experienced “at best a wash” from Act 10, said Sheriff Robert Spoden.
He said any savings from non-sworn employees have been offset by declining revenue and rising expenses elsewhere.
The sheriff’s department has a staff of 203 employees, about 95 sworn officers, another 80 non-sworn corrections officers and the rest civilian workers, Spoden said.
Cost of savings
While James Palmer doesn’t dispute that there have been savings to taxpayers, the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association said the savings come at a high price.
“Dispatchers and county correctional officers have seen a marked decline in their morale,” said Palmer, whose union represents about 10,000 sworn and non-sworn law enforcement employees in the state.
Palmer said it’s too early to tell whether lower morale has diminished public safety, but he asserts it’s reasonable to predict there will be some loss. And he contends that higher turnover will begin to negatively impact local government budgets, although he said there is not yet any documented indication of declining employee retention rates.
Rock County’s sheriff said many of his employees were holding out hope that Walker would lose the recall election this month. He didn’t, defeating his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by 7 percentage points and, arguably, affirming the collective bargaining changes.
“After the election, it’s been pretty quiet, pretty solemn,” Spoden, a Democrat said.
“There’s a level of frustration from some of the officers I’ve talked to, and they think public workers have been somewhat demonized by the private sector,” the Rock County sheriff added.
But Beth, the Kenosha County sheriff, said the county and law enforcement administrators retrieved some flexibility and control lost at the hands of an unbending, powerful union.
Gone are the days, Beth said, when sheriff’s department employees took vacation or sick days with little notice, or just didn’t show up for their shifts, during the holidays.
While sworn officers are not affected by Act 10, counties still can open up contract negotiations with law enforcement unions on health insurance.
Palmer said the trend in law enforcement contract negotiations is to include pension discussions in the bargaining process. He said the writing is on the walls, and a lot of officers are mindful that they will need to make some concessions.
“Employers have gone to police and firefighters and have said we want you to pay pension contributions. If they don’t, there’s a new health insurance deductible of $20,000,” said the union chief. “That carrot and stick is a strong incentive.”
Meyer, of the Badger State Sheriff's Association, agreed, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if legislation is proposed that would require protective services to pay more for their benefits, too. A federal court earlier this year noted that part of Act 10 is inherently unfair.