As DuPage sheriff outlines bigger budget, he says finding enough officers is his top challenge
DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick remembers a time when hundreds of job applicants would be taking tests as part of the process for earning a badge.
"Now, we get maybe 50 if we're lucky, and this is every single police chief, every single sheriff, saying the same thing," Mendrick said.
As the county board begins budget discussions for the coming fiscal year, Mendrick said his department faces a persistent challenge: double-digit staffing shortages.
The sheriff's office has offered hiring bonuses of up to $15,000, or $5,000 annually for the first three years on the force, but it's still struggling to fill jobs as police departments from around the country poach from each other and recruit transfers, a strategy known as lateral hiring.
"Arizona and Florida are coming out here and recruiting our officers," Mendrick told county board members Tuesday.
The department currently operates with a head count of 473 sworn and civilian employees, though it's authorized by the county board to have as many as 502. That means the sheriff's office has 23 vacant deputy posts and six open civilian positions.
Like many agencies, the department is dealing with a wave of retirements -- 25 this year -- while competing for qualified officers.
"We're all doing laterals. It's basically like cannibalizing each other to get employees," Mendrick said.
Mendrick's initial budget request calls for adding four deputy positions to the department's authorized head count to reinstate a work-release program. But Mendrick said his office would likely staff the program through the use of overtime.
"I don't even know if I'll be able to fill my basic head count next year, let alone satisfy the extra four that we need, so a lot of what we're going to have to do is going to be in an overtime mode," he said.
DuPage's top cop said most of the retiring deputies have told department brass they "don't want to be around" for the SAFE-T Act, the criminal justice reform law passed by Illinois legislators last year. Among other key provisions, the law eliminates cash bail beginning in 2023 and replaces it with a risk-based system aimed at addressing inequities in the criminal justice system.
"These are going to be drastic law changes," Mendrick said. "Everybody who can retire is retiring, and this is what they're citing as the reason."
The law also sets new training requirements and standards on mental health screenings for officers. Under Mendrick's budget proposal, the department plans to reallocate a sergeant's position to implement an "in-house training program to ensure compliance with new mandates and recertification requirements," Mendrick said.
Overall, the sheriff is requesting a department budget of $60,537,209, an $8.96 million increase from fiscal 2022.
Sheriff's officials have attributed the request for additional funding in part to $2.7 million in budgeted salary increases due to collective bargaining agreements, cost-of-living adjustments and the four deputy positions for the work-release program.
Capital expenses are projected to total $2.7 million. That includes replacing aging technology. The department has computers that are still running on Microsoft Windows 7, raising cybersecurity concerns, officials said.
Vehicle repairs and fuel costs also were previously expensed within a centralized general fund but are now budgeted in the sheriff's spending plan.
Some county board members, meanwhile, were willing to allocate funds to help attract qualified candidates and compete with other departments in a tight job market.
"Sometimes, you've just got to suck it up and pay people a little bit more money, especially in this economy," board member Sheila Rutledge said.
Board member Jim Zay said the county has to "get out in front of" the hiring challenges.
"Ultimately, it's going to cost us. It's going to cost us in overtime," Zay said. "It's going to cost us in burnout for people that we're asking you to do more that are finally going to say, 'You know what, I can't do this anymore,' and they're going to leave to go somewhere else."
Mendrick's budget proposal also sets aside $425,000 for the nonprofit group JUST of DuPage to provide vocational training, addiction treatment, counseling and other services for inmates in the county jail.
County board members have until the end of November to approve a final draft of the budget.