Missoula County Detention Center officers manning an informational picket at the County Courthouse over the last few weeks aired a familiar complaint: Their bosses, they say, aren’t listening. Given that Detention Center officers work for Sheriff Mike McMeekin, they may have a point: The sheriff has been in Baton Rouge, La., for weeks, participating in relief efforts, and it’s unclear when he’s expected back.
In the meantime, Detention Officers Association of Missoula County attorney Matt Thiel is leading the charge for better pay. Starting pay for Missoula detention officers—working at the state’s second-largest county detention facility—ranks below that in Yellowstone, Gallatin and Flathead counties. More to the point, picketers argue, detention officer pay in 2005 is only 66 percent of starting pay for a non-detention sheriff’s department deputy—a growing disparity between street officers and those who work in the jail.
As a result, union reps say, Missoula County has trouble recruiting and retaining qualified detention center officers, with consequences that may eventually have an impact on public safety. Currently, the county jail is staffed at 20-25 percent below recommended safe staffing levels.
Detention officers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (representing officers managing juvenile inmates) are requesting an 8-percent pay increase, versus the 3-percent increase being offered by the county.
And while Steve Johnson, director of human resources for Missoula County, says county commissioners set the parameters for the detention center’s budget, Thiel says McMeekin is well-positioned to take a leadership role in negotiations. He just hasn’t. The sheriff, Thiel says, has “simply ignored the issue,” which has been ongoing for at least five years.
A Sept. 26 meeting between union reps and Johnson failed to move negotiations forward, producing only a notice that the county has petitioned the state board of personnel appeals to schedule mediation of the issue, which may take several weeks to schedule.
Maybe by that time, Sheriff McMeekin will be back in town, where he can decline to get involved in departmental disgruntlement at lesser remove.