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Vacancies could impact Alpena County jail operations, officials say

News File Photo A door at the Alpena County Jail is seen in this March 2021 News archive photo.

ALPENA — Corrections officers are moving on from their jobs at the Alpena County Jail to accept higher paying employment and if the trend continues it could impact operations, officials say.

Alpena County Commissioner Marty Thomson said right now, the situation is not dire, but if the trend continues, and new employees are not hired, drastic action may be needed to properly monitor and care for inmates.

The county commissioners could seek a tax increase for residents to help pay employees a more desirable wage so they stay in their positions longer and to help pay for other needs the county has.

Thomson said the Michigan Department of Corrections sets the minimum requirement for the number of employees needed to work in the jail. He said he is aware that three corrections officers moved on to other jobs earlier this month, and two more were in the interview process.

Thomson said if the staffing level drops too low, road patrol deputies, as well as Sheriff Steve Kieliszewski and Undersheriff Erik Smith, would have to pick up shifts in the jail to make up for the staffing shortage.

Kieliszewski said the situation in Alpena County is not unique and many other departments around the state are struggling to maintain a staff. He said the county isn’t just finding it challenging to hire and maintain corrections officers, but also deputies.

We are having difficulty getting applications for our road division as well,” Kieliszewski said. “The corrections division, however, is having more difficulties receiving applications because there aren’t a lot of people interested in going into the profession.”

Kieliszewski said poor pay, lack of benefits, job stress, and a lack of respect are a few of the reasons people aren’t lining up for the jobs.

“It is hard to compete with private businesses whose starting wages are $26 an hour. It is hard to attract applicants when, in some areas, McDonalds is paying $21 an hour and the stress doesn’t compare,” he said.

Thomson said the county is currently working with the corrections officers union to put the finishing touches on a new contract that would make pay and benefit packages more competitive, but he added even still, it likely won’t be able to compete with many businesses who are offering high salaries to fill their own vacant positions.

Thomson said in the worst case scenario, if the county can’t hire replacements, and staffing numbers decline further, Alpena County may have to seek assistance from other counties.

“Right now, I’m not concerned about having to ship inmates out to somewhere else, but if things get worse, we may have to reach out for help,” he said. “Right now I’m not sure where that help would come from, or what type of help it would be.”

Voters in 2017 approved a 1-mill, 20-year property tax — costing the owner of a $100,000 house about $50 a year — to cover the cost of the new jail and any additional staffing needs it may need. The Alpena County Commissioners have had to hire above and beyond what was available from the tax money after the bond payment was made however.

Thomson said the county may need to ask taxpayers for a tax increase to help pay for sheriff department staffing, and other needs the county has but struggles to pay for. He said decisions on a tax increase need to be made before the county exhausts the nearly $5.5 million in stimulus it received from the federal government from the American Rescue Plan Act. He said one possibility is to ask voters for enough money to make up for what the county loses from the Headlee Rollback.

Headlee is a state law that requires a government to limit its revenue. In some cases, local governments choose to ask voters to pay taxes to make up for the lost revenue.

It is estimated the county could recoup a touch more than $700,000 if voters approve a request and that money could be used to support county operations, such as the sheriff’s department.

In 2020, a staffing analysis calculated the minimum number of correction officers needed to staff the new jail. It showed 18 corrections officers were needed, and there would still be overtime among them. Kieliszewski said he is not releasing the state mandated minimum, or what the current staffing level is for security reasons.

Commissioner Kevin Osbourne said many public safety jobs have been tarnished because of politics at the state and federal level and, because of that, most people don’t want to make careers in them. He said he is concerned about the staffing issue at the jail, and hopes it can be rectified before more serious action is needed.

“It would be embarrassing and a shame if we ever had to send inmates somewhere else because we can’t run our own jail,” he said. “But these jobs are just unpopular right now.”

The jail in Alpena houses more than the people arrested in Alpena, as it has a contract with Montmorency County to house its inmates after its jail closed.

Montmorency County pays Alpena County $250,000 per year to house the inmates at the jail.

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