New sheriff gifts big raises to command staff and a big truck for himself

A document showing the salaries of non-union sheriff’s office employees in 2020 and 2021. Command staff hired as part of an incoming administration are not represented by a union. Sent to The Portager by the Portage County Auditor’s office on Jan. 21.
A document showing the salaries of non-union sheriff’s office employees in 2020 and 2021. Command staff hired as part of an incoming administration are not represented by a union. Sent to The Portager by the Portage County Auditor’s office on Jan. 21.

New sheriff gifts big raises to command staff and a big truck for himself

Commission president calls increases ‘exorbitant,’ sheriff’s office says they’re necessary to retain talent

Within his first weeks in office, Portage County Sheriff Bruce Zuchowski raised command staff salaries by more than $152,000 per year in total and purchased a new Ford F-250 for himself, to the dismay of at least two county commissioners.

Sheriff’s office command staff salaries will cost taxpayers $440,671.92 this year, compared with $288,515.32 in 2020, according to county payroll documents obtained by The Portager through a public records request.

At least two of the three county commissioners had no knowledge of these salary increases, which were made on Jan. 4. Zuchowski also did not get commissioners’ advance approval, as required, when he purchased the truck under their name on Jan. 6.

“I’m devastated about this,” said Sabrina Christian-Bennett, president of the board of county commissioners.

Christian-Bennett said she heard nothing about the salary increases until a colleague in another county department brought it up to her on Friday afternoon. The commission already approved the sheriff’s office’s budget of around $14 million in December, she said.

Chief Deputy Ralph Spidalieri said the sheriff’s office needed to increase command staff salaries to compete with other counties where pay for these positions is higher than in Portage County. And he said Zuchowski needed the truck because the sheriff is too tall to fit into any of the agency’s existing SUVs.

The Portage County Board of County Commissioners allocates the county’s money to all the departments in the county, basing their decisions on reports generated by department heads. Those department heads, including the sheriff, can decide to spend the lump sum from the board however they want, said Todd Bragg, the county’s budget and financial management director.

Last year, the board approved a 1.5 percent salary increase for all county employees. This was possible mainly through sales tax revenue, Bragg said. Normally, the funds go to department heads who then decide how to allocate funds, but this increase went directly to employees.

To pay for the command staff raises, Zuchowski could request an amendment to the sheriff’s office budget from the board of county commissioners or internally restructure his department’s finances, Christian-Bennett said. Zuchowski had asked the commissioners about doing a wage study seeking to compare sheriff’s office wages with neighboring counties. Because the funds to pay a firm for that study weren’t in the county’s budget, they denied it, she said.

“If he wants to give exorbitant increases in that budget, he’s got to figure out where he’s going to cut costs in his budget,” Christian-Bennett said. “And if he’s talking about trying to recruit people, well, the only way you’re gonna recruit patrolmen is by giving them more money, not your administration.”

Spidalieri said the sheriff’s office raised the salaries by necessity: to retain employees and to offer fair, living wages. In a salary study the Portage County Sheriff’s Office conducted, neighboring counties paid their sheriff’s office command staff significantly more than Portage County did. In Stark and Geauga counties, people with the rank of chief made more than $100,000, he said. Majors made more than $90,000.

Based on this, Zuchowski hired Spidalieri as his chief deputy to replace Dale Kelly, raising that position’s salary from $80,101.58 to $104,000. Spidalieri also serves as a county commissioner in Geauga County, where he makes about $61,000 per year.

Major Larry Limbert will remain in the same position, but his salary is increasing from $76,436.36 to $94,671.98.

Zuchowski promoted Gary Smith from road department captain to commander, raising his salary from $62,749 to $73,999.90. To fill the vacant road department captain position, he re-employed Richard Noland, who had retired, for $84,000.02.

Zuchowski also created a new position, detective bureau captain, and hired Eric Dreger for $84,000.02.

The Ohio Revised Code fixes sheriffs’ salaries based on the population of the county they serve. Census data from 2019 lists Portage County’s population as 162,466, fixing Zuchowski’s income around $87,000 per year as sheriff.

Zuchowski did not return calls from The Portager, instead asking Spidalieri to speak for the sheriff’s office.

Spidalieri suggested that the raises were made possible through a good relationship between the sheriff’s office and the board of county commissioners.

“I think that we have three great commissioners right now that are willing to listen to us,” he said. “I think that they’re going to be mindful of our concerns and our needs. And that’s the best way I can put it to you.”

But Christian-Bennett called the sheriff’s spending “very unprecedented actions” and said, traditionally, department heads seeking to make budgeting changes like this always talk to the board. “I’m even more devastated because his chief deputy is a [Geauga] county commissioner” and should be aware of standard procedures, she said.

County Commissioner Vicki Kline said she didn’t know anything about the raises, either. The third county commissioner, Tony Badalamenti, did not respond to a request for comment.

Spidalieri said the sheriff’s office also needed to increase those salaries to combat high turnover among patrolmen. Portage County’s road deputies make $59,000 a year after three or four years of service, while patrolmen with the same experience in Streetsboro make $74,963, he said.

But patrolmen did not receive a pay increase. Zuchowski couldn’t give them raises even if he wanted to because the unions who represent them agreed to extend their contract for one year in December. The unions’ negotiations with the board of county commissioners for their new contract just began, Christian-Bennett said.

The deputies are “not going to like it,” she said of the raises. “It’s disappointing because they’re the ones out there on the streets. … They’ve got the tough job.”

Spidalieri said he hopes the deputies negotiate raises as well.

“I hope that our union guys are gonna get raises,” he said. “Because they deserve it. I mean, when you look at where they’re at on the salary study, we have to. To preserve our department here from losing everybody, we have to. In fairness to them, they should.”

The 2021 Ford F-250 Zuchowski purchased from Sarchione was significantly less expensive than the list price: $38,846.60 versus the $50,560 listed on the dealer’s website. Spidalieri said his boss needed it because, at roughly six-feet-nine, Zuchowski and all his gear could not fit into the Chevrolet Tahoes or Ford Explorers that the sheriff’s office currently has, posing a safety issue. The F-250 also offers four-wheel drive, which is useful during the winter, he said.

Vehicle size has been a recurring issue for Zuchowski.

When Zuchowski worked at the Ohio State Highway Patrol, he sued the Ohio Department of Public Safety, OSHP’s parent agency, in 2014 and 2016, claiming he’d been a victim of “patterns or practices of employment discrimination and retaliation,” according to court records. Despite multiple requests, the department refused to provide him with a larger vehicle, like a standard-issue Chevrolet Tahoe, the initial complaints said. Because of his stature, he’d been suffering from medical problems caused by entering and exiting a normal-sized cruiser.

He voluntarily dismissed the first case, which dragged on for two years. He then quickly filed the second case and won a $12,500 settlement from the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

As sheriff, getting a larger vehicle was a top priority. But in purchasing the truck, Zuchowski did not first discuss it with the commissioners, Christian-Bennett said. The invoice for the truck, obtained by The Portager through a public records request, named the purchaser as “Portage County Commissioner.”

A document showing the salaries of non-union sheriff’s office employees in 2020 and 2021. Command staff hired as part of an incoming administration are not represented by a union. Sent to The Portager by the Portage County Auditor’s office on Jan. 21.

Former Portage County Sheriff David Doak said he also sought to increase his commanders’ pay during his 12 years in office. But he couldn’t, he said, because he did not have enough in his budget. Payroll occupied about three-fourths of that budget, and sometimes union deputies or lieutenants made even more than command staff.

But when employees did get raises, he said command staff did not always receive the same percentage increase as the union employees.

“There were times when I felt that the non-union employees deserved whatever the union employees got in terms of percentages,” he said. “That didn’t always work out because we had to deal with what we had to work with in the budget.”

These increases also come in the wake of last year’s $1 million budget increase to fund staffing for the Portage County jail expansion.

This article was produced through a reporting partnership with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University.

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