EagleHerald Staff Writer

MENOMINEE—The Menominee County Board of Commissioners Tuesday discussed a proposal to offer a monetary incentive for current and potential employees of the Menominee County Sheriff’s Department. The motion was approved 8-1 with Commissioner Larry Schei voting no.

The proposed Retention & Recruitment Incentive will pay $2,500 to all full-time correctional officers in Menominee County, whether they be currently or newly employed. Eligible employees would have to stay with the department through Jan. 1, 2022, to receive the bonus. The program will cost a maximum of $52,000 and will be funded by the $4.4 million Menominee County has received thus far through the American Rescue Plan Act.

This proposal comes amid a severe staff shortage within the Menominee County jail, which has struggled to retain its current officers and attract new ones, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic. According to Menominee County Undersheriff Thomas Draze, who was present for the meeting, the department is currently short by five staff members and will soon be losing another.

County Administrator Jason Carviou emphasized that this shortage has reached a critical level and said that losing any more officers would require the county to move inmates to another location. If this were to happen, inmates would be relocated to the closest U.P. county willing to accept them, according to Draze and Menominee County Jail Administrator Lt. Greg Hanson. Draze and Hanson said that, in the case that no other county is able to accommodate them, Menominee County would be forced to take measures to try and have some of the inmates released.

Proponents of the incentive hope that it will help the county avoid this situation and bring the jail back up to a full staff. Carviou explained that the incentive is targeted to mitigate this problem by acting both as a signing bonus to attract new candidates while also rewarding and retaining current officers.

Undersheriff Draze emphasized the latter point in particular, explaining that current officers have been obligated to work overtime to make up for the staff shortage.

“They are literally working 12- and 16-hour shifts, going home for four hours, coming in working for four more hours, going home for four, coming in and working another 12 hours every day, it’s crazy,” he said.

Draze offered an example of an officer who goes home at 6 a.m. to three kids and a husband after a 12-hour shift. He said that this officer, after taking care of her kids and talking with her husband, will generally only get an hour of sleep before going back to work. He said that he has also been working shifts at the jail to help cover for these staff shortages.

In addition to quality of life considerations, the board speculated that the salary for officers may also deter individuals from staying on or joining the jail staff; new hires start out at $18.52 per hour, according to Draze. He said he believes the incentive would help bring applicants to Menominee County who might otherwise look for opportunities in other counties where the salaries and benefits are more attractive. Neighboring Marinette County, for example, offers $19.55 per hour for new correctional officers, according to the 2021/22 Marinette County Grade Order List Step Plan.

The board discussed the possibility of increasing officers’ salaries rather than offering a one-time lump sum payment. Carviou explained, however, that changing officers’ salaries would be a process that could take several months whereas the incentive program could be implemented immediately. He added that the incentive would be a feature in addition to any future salary changes.

Carviou and Menominee County Chairman Larry Phelps also commented that these challenges aren’t specific to Menominee County, but rather part of a national trend of declining interest in law-enforcement as a potential career. A 2019 report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) attests to this so-called “Workforce Crisis.” Some 41% of the police agencies that participated in PERF’s 2019 survey responded that they had experienced an increase in shortages of full-time staff compared to just five years ago, and 63% of respondents said the number of applicants for these positions has also declined.

Carviou also noted the cultural shifts in perception around law-enforcement that may be impacting these numbers.

“In general, it’s hard to find people to fill the spots because (law enforcement) has such a negative connotation out there in the public media right now,” he said.

Draze said that recent local events, particularly concerning former Menominee County sheriff’s deputy Brian Helfert, who was charged with sexual assault of a minor, haven’t helped lessen these negative connotations.

“It doesn’t give law enforcement a good name,” he said. “It gives our department a black eye.”