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Staffing woes haunt Grand County

Departments struggle to provide essential services as vacant positions go unfilled

 

Grand County’s four dispatchers are working 12 hour shifts alone.

During their shift, they answer all 911 and nonemergency calls at the 24-hour agency while simultaneously managing conversations across fire departments, emergency medical services, US Forest Service, search and rescue, and more. The lone dispatcher often goes without breaks, even if they’ve just addressed an intense call.

At the jail, the only officer on the floor sometimes waits 10-15 minutes to get back up if there’s a scuffle with an inmate. More than 20% of the positions in the 60-person sheriff’s office are currently vacant and it’s hurting services in the county.



“Tonight, there’s going to be two deputies covering 1,850 square miles,” Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin told county commissioners during a conversation about staffing on Tuesday. “As soon as those deputies get tied up, that’s why the undersheriff and lieutenants and I are working over 100 hours a week — because we have to come out and handle all those other calls that come in.”

Grand County Clerk Sara Rosene, who has three vacancies in her 12-person department, reminded commissioners about her decision to reduce certain services at the clerk’s office.



“I’ve had some citizens say to me, ‘I pay taxes. I should be able to get driver’s license services in Grand County,’” Rosene said. “I agree with that. I don’t have the people to do it.”

For road and bridge, the 42-person department is short 11 people, and a week of heavy snow could mean having to prioritize what roads the county plows.

“We’re very fortunate we haven’t had the back to back snow days (where) staff doesn’t get a break between storms, because we wouldn’t be able to plow all the roads,” acting County Manager Ed Moyer said. “We have too many roads to be able to plow them.”

Staffing is reaching a critical level at departments across the county. County employees are feeling burnt out from the extra hours spent covering vital positions, which can be dangerous in emergency responses.

“People are to the point where they’re exhausted from overtime,” Schroetlin said. “It’s affecting families. It’s affecting kids. It ultimately affects — if I have people working seven days a week — it ultimately affects the decisions that they can make.”

Schroetlin pleaded with county commissioners Tuesday to allow him to adjust how he uses the sheriff’s office personnel budget without increasing the total. But the change could have far reaching effects for the county budget as a whole.

The sheriff’s request would allow him to determine how the personnel budget is spent, allowing him to adjust hiring incentives, shift differentials, wage adjustments and training steps. The hope would be to start making wages comparable to other counties that tend to pull away newer recruits.

“I’d rather have 10 quality positions that are filled, and know that I have those, than 15 that keep flopping back and forth,” Schroetlin said.

However, hearing the proposal for the first time Tuesday, Commissioner Kris Manguso expressed her hesitancy to allow the change, pointing out that other departments would likely want to follow suit. She did not come out against the proposal, but declined to make an immediate decision.

Commissioner Rich Cimino expressed similar reservations with only Commissioner Merrit Linke showing immediate support for the idea.

“What we’ve been doing isn’t working, so why should we keep doing it?” Linke said. “Even if all the other elected officials come to us with this, if it’s the same amount of money and it gets the job done, I’m supportive of this idea — give it a try because what we’re doing is not working.”

At more than $20 million, personnel costs make up 46% of expenses in the county’s budget. According to Moyer, if vacancies continue at the current pace, the county would not spend $2.5 million of that by the end of the year.

Cimino floated the idea that maybe a portion of those dollars could go back to departments to be used creatively, but further discussions would be needed. Manguso also pointed out that money alone might not fix the problem.

The county’s difficulties to staff essential services reflect a crisis felt by employers across the county. Many people agree the problem is rooted in the cost of living in Grand County, which has only gotten worse for prospective home buyers since the pandemic and East Troublesome Fire.

“Housing is an issue and we do understand that,” Manguso said. “You can pay somebody whatever, but if they can’t find a place to live, it doesn’t matter how much money you got.”

The Grand County Board of Realtors’ multi-list service currently has just 43 single-family homes available for sale countywide. Of those, only 14 are priced at less than $1 million.

While these numbers don’t reflect homes outside the list service, condos, townhomes or mobile homes, the dearth of affordable properties for a family looking to purchase is more than apparent. Higher wages might not be enough to bring and keep people in these essential positions.

“I know it’s not about the money, but I have to start somewhere with it,” Schroetlin said. “Otherwise we just waste the money.”

Grand County Undersheriff Wayne Schafer emphasized the fact that even within the county, wages at the sheriff’s office are not competitive enough. Positions at grocery and convenience stores are seeing comparable wages, and those jobs come without the hazards and challenging schedule of police work.

“If we could just compete locally, with just the people we already have in our community — they already live here,” Schafer said. “They could get a job with great benefits. They could do something great for their community. I believe that we have people in this community that could come work for this team — in all of these places — if we were just comparable at least locally.”

Still, any sort of adjustment for the sheriff’s office could have ramifications across the entire county. Also, additional benefits given to new hires would need to be considered for the loyal employees who have stuck around despite the challenges.

Manguso referenced this “domino effect” in her desire to think the move through.

“Everybody needs new buildings too, and everybody needs new vehicles,” Manguso said. “Where are we going to get all this money?”

Linke felt the sheriff’s urgency highlighted the need to move quickly. Additionally, any changes could be re-evaluated later this year come budgeting.

“We got spring break season coming up. We got summer coming up,” Linke said. “Every day that goes by, there’s a position vacant.”

The commissioners asked the sheriff to come back with a more specific request in a week or two that could solve the immediate issue. Schroetlin was agreeable, but also made a plea to residents about the reality of the situation for his and other departments.

“When our citizens call and ask, ‘Why is it taking so long to get our road plowed? Why is it taking so long for a deputy to get there?’ We’re trying,” Schroetlin said. “… At our staffing levels, we don’t have the people to respond.”


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