AUBURN — Sheriff Guy Desjardins warns that he may soon have too few guards to watch the inmates in the Androscoggin County Jail.
On Wednesday, the three-member County Commission refused to hire two full-time guards and pressured the sheriff to increase his pool of lower-paid, part-time help.
“I want him to get the ball rolling,” Commissioner Elaine Makas said. “Whether he gets the full-time staff or not, he needs them.”
To that, Desjardins agreed.
Recent turnover at the jail has shrunk the county's pool of part-time reserve officers, as more and more have been hired as full-time staff. With even more staff leaving and the summer vacation season coming up, Desjardins worries he may burn out his part-time staff.
If they continue to work at their present pace, several will reach the state's maximum for the annual number of hours allowed by a reserve officer: 1,040 hours, said Desjardins and Capt. John Lebel, the jail administrator.
By the middle of July, none may be eligible to work any more hours, they said.
“I know we're not painting a pretty picture, but it's only going to get worse,” Desjardins said. “I can't run short. I am not sure these folks will last until July 15.”
The current staffing at the jail is overseen by the Maine Department of Corrections, which also approves the funding.
Each of the proposed hirings falls within the current budget. However, the County Commission must give its approval, too.
After Wednesday's meeting, the commissioners agreed that they were not trying to change the number of full-time staffers at the jail. However, they declined to explain their refusal to hire the people Desjardins and Lebel recommended.
Chairman Randall Greenwood called it a “management decision.” Commissioner Jonathan LaBonte said he hoped the sheriff would “leverage his resources” concerning part-timers.
The part-time reserve officers do the same job as full-time staff, but they do it for less money, $11.75 per hour compared to a corrections officer with five years of experience who would earn $16.43 per hour.
Hiring and keeping a crew of part-time staff can be tough, Lebel said.
Many get hired to the jail. Others, looking for better pay, find other work. And often the pool of applicants is thin.
The last group of 30 applicants resulted in only a single qualified candidate, Lebel said.
“It's pretty discouraging,” he said. Some were eliminated as a result of poor work records. Others had lengthy criminal histories, having spent time themselves in this jail or another.
“You can't have any felony convictions at all,” Lebel said.
Over the past two years, requests for applications for part-timers has been done mostly through word of mouth.
Commissioners said they want to open up the process with more advertising, which got poor results when it was last tried two years ago, said County Clerk Patricia Fournier.
Perhaps the economy will change that, Greenwood said.
Desjardins agreed to open up the process, but he warned that it will take time. New applicants would unlikely be added to the work force for at least two months, time needed for background checks and training.