Updated: Sheriff’s office wants to hire 18 new employees

Image of Portage County commissioners
Commissioner Vicki Kline watches Sabrina Christian-Bennett, who attended the meeting virtually from quarantine.

The sheriff’s office is hoping to give raises, update radio equipment, increase jail personnel and upgrade protective gear

Correction: This article originally misreported that acting Budget Director David Lair’s office was renovated for $165,000. The renovation was for a different office. We have removed the reference to this renovation until we can get further clarification.

The Portage County Sheriff’s Office asked county commissioners for funding to hire six additional deputies and 12 corrections officers, along with across-the-board raises at Thursday’s regular meeting.

They currently have 62 corrections officers and 27 deputies.

Chief Deputy Ralph Spidalieri repeated Sheriff Bruce Zuchowski’s bid to bring sheriff’s office salaries in line with those of other Portage County departments and surrounding communities.

Detailing every position in the sheriff’s office, he said, “We’re right at the bottom. We’re struggling to find people. It’s hard to find someone to work in jails.”

Portage County’s role, he said, seems to be training personnel so they can move on to higher paying jobs elsewhere.

Only Commissioner Vicki Kline was present in the room during the meeting. Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett participated via Zoom, in quarantine because a family member has Covid-19. Commissioner Tony Badalamenti cited a family emergency and did not participate.

Neither Kline nor Christian-Bennett could be reached for comment.

During the meeting, Kline asked Spidalieri to prioritize his requests so commissioners can address them.

Spidalieri said four of the deputies would be assigned to the county drug task force and two for road duties. The new corrections officers at the jail would allow every shift to be fully staffed, even taking time off for various reasons, including training, into account.

He also asked for new radios to replace units he said are no longer serviceable. The radios now in service at the county jail only communicate in the building itself, again compromising officers’ safety, he said. They cannot call other officers for backup or communicate with dispatchers.

During a recent evacuation drill at the jail, the people outside the building could not communicate with deputies inside.

To service radio traffic, the sheriff’s office would like a radio tower and a booster tower, adding another $3 million price tag. As it is, two areas in the county are actually blind spots: when officers are in those areas, there is a potentially serious safety issue, he said.

The idea is “to be right at the cusp of that technology point so we’re not chasing our tail. We want to do this right,” Spidalieri said.

The sheriff’s office is exploring possible grant money to fund body and dash cams, which sheriff’s officers currently do not have. Nor do they have ballistic shields or ballistic helmets. Spidalieri cited the possibility of unrest at the Kent State campus, likening the helmets officers now wear to children’s bicycle helmets. The equipment would not protect officers against bricks being thrown at them, he said.

Replacing and adding surveillance cameras also made the sheriff’s wish list, as did bringing the jail in line with federal standards so Portage County could hold federal prisoners. Doing so “could offset a huge portion of our operation,” Spidalieri said. The jail is currently housing between 200-220 inmates.

The current camera configuration leaves the jail with blind spots, further endangering officers, he said.

Referencing a recent drug bust in Streetsboro, Spidalieri said, “our responsibility is keeping our officers safe and our prisoners safe. It’s starting pretty heavy right now. There’s been an increase in drugs, there’s been an increase in overdoses. We’re not going to risk more lives or deaths. We’re taking an enforcement position.”

Bragg termination date set

Without comment, the commissioners extended former Finance Director Todd Bragg’s paid leave to April 1, after which his employment will be terminated. They approved wage increases for various county personnel, including some in the commissioner’s office, as they said those wages were not in line with what others in similar positions were earning.

Internet access

Regarding extending WiFi service to the administration building, Internal Services Director JoAnne Townend told commissioners she has informed the county’s IT department that the whole building must be outfitted, not just part of it. Having WiFi capability in all the county buildings is the ultimate goal, she said.

With WiFi in place, the commissioners might see fit to resume livestreaming their meetings. Meanwhile, The Portager has committed to livestreaming commission meetings for about $700 on its Facebook page.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.