Mountain House deputies

Deputy Steven Baxter adjusts Regina Moreno's new bike helmet at the Mountain House Bike Rodeo in May 2017. This week, the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office reduced the number of deputies assigned to Mountain House because of a contract dispute between the county and the deputy sheriffs association.

In his first month on the job as the top administrator for Mountain House, Steven Pinkerton didn’t expect to have a public safety crisis dropped on his desk, but that’s what happened last week.

On Thursday, Pinkerton, who took over as the Mountain House Community Services District general manager on Aug. 1, learned that San Joaquin County Sheriff Patrick Withrow would pull five of his department’s seven deputies, plus a sergeant, from their duties in Mountain House on Monday and reassign them to general patrol duties.

“I’ve never experienced five days’ notice on police protection before,” Pinkerton said. “At least you know when they schedule the shifts two weeks out, and we didn’t have that.”

The move has left Pinkerton scrambling to find police coverage for the community. He and CSD counsel John Bakker are also taking a closer look at the district’s contract with the county to see what their rights — and the sheriff’s department’s obligations — are in this case.

Withrow informed Mountain House community leaders on Thursday, and then announced to the public on Friday, that an impasse over San Joaquin County’s labor contract with the San Joaquin County Deputy Sheriffs Association required him to reassign 19 deputies across the county from proactive police efforts to patrol.

Withrow told reporters at a Friday press conference that the association had been without a contract or a raise for 4½ years, and the latest proposed three-year contract also doesn’t offer a raise.

The county made its last, best and final offer Feb. 28, and the contract has been in mediation since then.

“Now it has impacted us to the point where we can’t get people to come and want to work with us or stay with the department,” Withrow said. “At the end of it, it will be 7½ years that our deputies have gone without a raise, and it’s a net loss to them, and that doesn’t even count their medical costs that they’re paying for.

“The 10 that I’ve lost in the past six months that I’ve been sheriff, they just need to go down the street. They can go to Manteca PD and make $2,500 more a month.”

Mountain House CSD board chairman Daniel Harrison characterized Withrow’s strategy as a political ploy to coerce the San Joaquin County board of supervisors into offering deputies a better contract.

“He sent a message to Mountain House residents that he doesn’t care about the safety of the residents, and he’s using us as a pawn for his own personal agenda with the board of supervisors to get his deputies a raise,” Harrison said.

“Do their deputies deserve a raise? Absolutely. They’ve been working without a contract for over four years, and when the county was in dire straits, they helped the county out,” he added. “I understand there’s just so much money in the coffers, but you don’t use another — we’re almost like a city — as a pawn to threaten the board of supervisors. That was a mistake on his part, and the residents of Mountain House are extremely upset.”

Within the next week, Pinkerton and Harrison hope to call a special meeting of the CSD board to consider options for police protection for as long as it takes for the sheriff’s department and the county government to settle on a new contract for deputies.

Withrow said at Friday’s press conference that the move honored the contract the county has with the Mountain House CSD, but Harrison said that subsequent amendments to that contract called for the level of police staffing the CSD had until this week’s reassignment of deputies.

“It affects us in a huge way in that we have 22,000-plus residents here, and the reason why we have that addition was because it originally came from the sheriff’s department. The deputies were complaining that they had no backup and no coverage. We were growing, so we went ahead and hired five more plus the sergeant,” Harrison said.

“Now, for this size, nothing is going to be proactive. It’s going to be reactive. We may not even have the same deputies that were normally assigned here. Now you may have a deputy that works from Lodi or Stockton being told, now you’ve got to work Mountain House this week,” he said, adding that effective police work requires that deputies form a bond with the communities they protect. “They’re not going to have the feel that something’s out of character like we have now. The ones that are here, they know when something is different.”

Harrison said that the CSD includes the cost of police protection in its budget and pays the county about $160,000 a month for its contract with the sheriff’s department, something the board must constantly review and update as the community grows.

He added that even if the sheriff’s department doesn’t bill the CSD for the reduced service, that’s small consolation.

“We’re paying our bills. And now with that, yeah, it’s going to save us over $100,000 a month, but that’s not what we asked for. Mountain House residents deserve the same type of protection that any other place does,” Harrison said. “For all I know, he could be in a breach of contract. That’s something that our district counsel and general manager are looking into and would be able to answer.”

The county board of supervisors sent out a statement in response to Withrow’s comments, noting that the previous contract with the deputy sheriffs association gave deputies a 27.5% raise over eight years between 2007 and 2015. They also disputed the sheriff’s assertion that deputies were not offered a raise, saying that the February offer included a 5% raise over three years, including health and retirement benefits consistent with what other county employees receive.

The supervisors’ statement also states that the positions of the county and the deputy sheriffs association are a long way from compromise, with the county’s proposal costing $2.9 million over three years and the association’s proposal costing $8.7 million over three years.

Supervisor Bob Elliott, who represents the 5th District in the southern part of the county, including Mountain House, said the matter is still under negotiation, and the board has every intention to find a compromise.

“We want our deputy sheriffs to have a contract that they can be satisfied with, and at the same time, we have a fiduciary responsibility to our county taxpayers, that we need to make sure that our budget is a sustainable budget,” Elliott said.

He said the county’s latest offer was fair and comparable to what other counties offer.

“We had some information that was actually provided by the union, by the association, which indicated that the total compensation right now is more than 5% above the average of comparable counties,” Elliott said. “I think one of the things that the deputy sheriffs association may be looking at is the salary portion, and the salary part of their compensation package is somewhat below comparable groups, but when you look at the total package, the total package that they get is actually greater than what’s being offered by comparable groups, so we think that what we’re offering is a fair and reasonable offer, but we’re still willing to negotiate on those things.”

Elliott added that the actual negotiation is in the hands of County Administrator Monica Nino, along with the county counsel and a third-party negotiator.

“We certainly haven’t stopped negotiating,” he said. “The mediation process is still ongoing. We hope to come to a reasonable conclusion.”

Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com or 830-4227.

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