Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

More costs associated with new courthouse
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Mar 11, 2014, 15:48

COLONIAL HEIGHTS -- The new, much larger courthouse on the Boulevard came with a price tag of $22 million. Now that it is open, there are some added costs expected to go along with it.

On Tuesday, March 11, City Council is set to vote on funding for new deputies and radio system improvements to eliminate dead zones in the courthouse.

The council is set to vote on shifting $26,000 to fund two new full-time deputy positions for the current fiscal year that ends June 30. An additional $30,000 would also be shifted to cover past overtime costs.

However for the next fiscal year, the cost of those two deputies, as well as two more part-time deputies requested by Sheriff Todd Wilson, could reach $193,000.

Wilson made the case for the new deputies at a council work session on Feb. 18.

City Manager Tom Mattis said it boils down to three issues: a much bigger courthouse with more responsibilities, Obamacare restrictions requiring health care to be offered to all employees working more than 28 hours a week, and the possibility of using a third courtroom.

There are currently six full-time deputies and seven part-time deputies who can currently work up to 32 hours per week. But Wilson said the new courtroom would bump the part-time deputies’ average up to 39 hours if it is open three days a week.

There was some discussion at the work session over whether it is preferable to use full-time or part-time employees to boost staffing.

Finance Director Bill Johnson said a deputy with a salary of $36,000 a year can cost $62,896 when you include health care and other benefits, training and equipment.

While there is not health insurance or other benefits for part-time employees, there is still training and equipment that increase the actual cost per hour of work.

A part-time employee working 28 hours a week would cost $21,840 a year for salary, but when you include training and equipment it would total $33,600.

Each new employee would have to go through five and a half weeks of training.

But Wilson said that while on paper it is cheaper for part-time employees, this does not account for several issues. Full-time deputies are typically higher-quality employees and there is less turnover. And part-time employees require more careful monitoring to make sure they don’t go over the 28-hour-a-week average.

He noted that if one full-time deputy is out for an injury or illness, then it is difficult to make up those hours with part-time employees.

Sheriff Wilson said there have already been times when the sheriff has had to hire city police officers to fill in. He has also used auxiliary police officers to transport inmates when they are available.

“If you take a fire department shift or a police department shift, there is built-in depth within that shift. We never had built-in depth and now with the health-care restrictions, we are well beyond any depth,” Wilson said.

He said the difference in cost between full-time and part-time employees per hour is minimal.

Mattis said Wilson is only asking for what the judges and clerks say they need to operate court.

“This isn’t a situation where he’s suggesting to arbitrarily build his empire down there or do something new or start a traffic enforcement program out here on [Interstate] 95 or something like that,” he said.

But Mayor Scott Davis questioned whether all of the new deputies are needed now when the third courtroom is not currently being used.

Sheriff Wilson replied that while he does want the two new full-time employees now, there is nothing saying that he has to use the part-time employees and it is flexible as to how many hours they work.

“It’s not costing the city anything unless they are actually in there,” Wilson said. “... Part-timers have always served a wonderful value for me because they work as little or as long as the court demands.”

Wilson said that the city has known for some time that these deputies would be needed.

“We built a building where we planned from day one that employees would come hand in hand with it,” Wilson said.

But Davis said deputies are state employees and the state should be taking a larger role in funding them. “I’m tired of supplementing the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said.

“And I would agree with you Mr. Mayor if my guys provided their services outside of the boundaries of this city,” Wilson said.

“I would argue that the majority in our courthouse aren’t our citizens,” said Davis, who has first-hand experience in these matters as a former city police officer.

Wilson warned not to expect much more funding from the state though, even though the sheriff and deputies are state employees. He said the state has decreased funding for deputies every year and that their minimum staffing standards are outdated and far below a safe level.

A bill sponsored by Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has passed the House of Delegates and state Senate and awaits the governor’s signature that would change the city’s charter and create a separate Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court clerk position. The bill came at the request of city judges and was approved by City Council.

The state Compensation Board could contribute as little as $28,000 if the third courtroom opens up, but the courtroom would not specifically be used just for Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

Councilwoman Diane Yates said she understands the need for more full-time deputies.

“I can’t help but believe that the quality of employee he’s looking for, and one that would be a longevity employee, would be someone who wants to work more than 28 hours a week,” she said.

Yates said there was a time when the sheriff was down three full-time employees and they can’t fill those positions with the limited amount of hours from part-time deputies.

“We’re going to have to come up with a way to fund it,” she said.

Councilman Joe Green said the new positions are important for the protection of employees and citizens.

“I think it’s a travesty to build a bigger courthouse ... and not give him the funding to staff it,” he said.

Councilman Greg Kochuba agreed and said the new positions are needed. “Be prepared to roll your sleeves up” to figure out how to pay for it, he said.

Davis said he was willing to fund one full-time and one part-time position until the new courtroom is used. “My biggest hold-up is that it is the anticipation of a new courtroom,” he said.

But Wilson emphasized they will be over the allowed hours for part-time employees even if the third courtroom is not used.

Councilman John Wood agreed with the mayor and said the city needs to move more gradually with adding employees.

“We all knew that a new courthouse with an additional courtroom would require additional staffing. ... The concern I have is that not that we increase the staff, but the manner in which we increase the staff,” he said.

Councilman Milton Freeland made the motion to proceed with Sheriff Wilson’s preferred option of funding two new full-time deputies now and two part-time deputies starting July 1.

It passed 5-2 with Freeland, Yates, Kochuba, Kenneth Frenier and Green voting yes to move forward with Tuesday’s public hearing, while Davis and Wood voted no, wanting a slower approach to hiring.

Meanwhile, City Council is also set to decide on whether to fund radio system improvements to eliminate dead zones in the courthouse. The equipment used to boost the signal will cost $36,000.

At the courthouse grand opening in October, deputies noted that there were dead zones in the building where they can’t use their radios.

“We are literally walking around this week and part of our big testing has been ‘Can you hear me now?’ going in every nook and cranny,” Wilson said at the time.

Wilson said there was no way to know the limitations of the radio system until the building was constructed and furnished. Wiring for the system is already in place, because the communication issue was expected, he said.

One of the places with poor reception is the area where prisoners are kept, likely due to the thick cinderblock walls and steel doors. Wilson said that is one of the most crucial areas to have good reception.

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