Sheriff’s office wants deputy for animal control position

| June 26, 2020 9:16 AM

Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short wants a sworn deputy as his next animal control officer.

The agency expects an opening at the position after the current animal control officer transfers to the county’s maintenance department. Bringing on a sworn deputy would allow the incoming officer to carry a firearm and assist with law enforcement work while handling animal issues, Short said.

But it comes with a cost. Short told the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners on June 17 he needed an additional $17,639 for a sworn deputy. Pay and compensation for a normal animal control officer runs about $48,671 a year while a sworn deputy amounts to $66,310, according to an analysis provided by the sheriff’s office.

“Speaking with sheriffs across the state, most animal control officers are sworn deputies or at least firearms qualified, so they can at least carry a gun, especially in today’s society,” Short told county commissioners.

The agency lucked out with the outgoing animal control officer, he said. Roger Guches, who presently holds the position, came to the sheriff’s office with a law enforcement background.

Able to qualify for a firearm, Guches could perform his duties while armed. Even so, Guches relied on law enforcement personnel accompany him for certain situations, said Undersheriff Brad Dodson.

“He does ask for people to come, whether a county deputy or city officer, because of those limitations,” Dodson told commissioners. “There is some of that — ‘You’re just animal control.’”

Bringing on a sworn deputy also allows that person the ability to work on the criminal violations and enforce state law on top of the animal control duties. Because animal control calls span the jurisdiction, the sheriff’s office would end up with a roving deputy, able to respond to problems across the county, Dodson said.

“That flexibility is going to be there, not just enforcing the law, but for everything else: transports and civil procedures,” he said. “It’s going to be an absolutely incalculable time saver. He’s going to get the ability to float the county. I think that’s going to be a good thing.”

County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) agreed that the combination role’s versatility seemed advantageous, but he warned Short and Dodson against mission creep.

“Just be aware of that, that the primary purpose is animal control,” Peck said.

When the county commissioners asked how nearby Flathead County handled animal control, Short said officers there were qualified to carry firearms, but were not sworn deputies. But the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office also has 60 sworn deputies as compared to the 20 in Lincoln County, Short said.

“For them to get backup, it’s a lot easier than for us,” he said.

Although county commissioners expressed tentative support for making the change, they asked Short to put the $17,639 bump into context. They blanched at the answer: a proposed, roughly $549,000 increase in the next budget.

“For me, personally, I like the flexibility,” Peck said. “I’m supportive of this. As far as that budget number goes, we’re going to have to chat.”

“For $17,000, I think we’re going to make that up in the flexibility [of the position],” County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) said. “It’s just with another 500,000, how do we do all of that.”

Short said he could discuss the office’s proposed expenditures in more detail when it came up as part of regular budget process.

“We can approve [this] and cut $470,000 of the other,” Bennett offered.

“That doesn’t sound like a very good trade off,” Short replied.

“It’s a pretty good time to be defunding law enforcement,” Peck said.

Short said it was possible the office would not receive qualified applicants. If the commissioners assented, they could at least advertise for the position, Short said. Dallas Bowe, director of human resources, said the county has seen a drop in qualified applicants for all positions compared to last year.

Short expressed optimism that a qualified applicant might be looking to retire or move from an urban environment to a place like Lincoln County.

County commissioners ultimately approved the possible shift of $17,638.91 to the sheriff’s office for a sworn animal control officer. Bennett made the motion and County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) offered a second. The final vote was unanimous.