The Portage County sheriff is seeking $1 million for new patrol vehicles

The Portage County commissioners will consider the sheriff’s suggestion to buy 20 new vehicles for patrol deputies. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

After a big salary bump for command staff, the union is optimistic that rank and file could also see raises

Sheriff Bruce Zuchowski asked Portage County commissioners this week to consider purchasing about $1 million worth of new patrol vehicles, a major expenditure that follows raises for his command staff totaling $150,000 per year.

By purchasing 20 new vehicles, the sheriff’s office would be able to assign each patrol deputy their own cruiser rather than trading off after each shift. Portage County Budget and Financial Management Director Todd Bragg discussed the sheriff’s request with the Board of County Commissioners during their meeting on Thursday.

“Now he has a million dollars plus $152,000 that’s not in his budget,” said Commission President Sabrina Christian-Bennett during the meeting. “That’s the concern. … We just got an email last night that he wants 20 new cars. It’s like, where’s this money coming from?”

She said the sheriff hasn’t yet met with the board, even though she has invited him to do so.

Commissioner Vicki Kline mentioned Bragg’s schedule for county-wide vehicle replacement, which has never accounted for 20 new vehicles in one year, she said.

“I do believe this sheriff is being treated differently than the former sheriff,” Kline said. “I think we’re just, maybe, giving more permissions to do whatever.”

Commissioner Tony Badalamenti said the new vehicles could improve the longevity of vehicles and help mitigate possible spread of Covid-19 through vehicle sharing.

Each vehicle, plus the necessary equipment, would cost approximately $50,000, Bragg said in an interview with The Portager. While the county does have money set aside in a fund for countywide vehicle replacements, that fund does not have enough for 20 new “pursuit-rated” Chevrolet Tahoes or Ford Interceptors. The county usually replaces only five sheriff’s office vehicles each year as part of the countywide vehicle replacement schedule that’s been in place for years.

The county could theoretically afford these new vehicles with money from the general fund, Bragg said.

“The long term question is whether that behooves us,” he said. “Is that the direction we want to head?”

If the board of commissioners approves the purchases, each vehicle would be driven less overall and, in turn, last longer. But Bragg said he and the Board of County Commissioners need to research maintenance costs and call departments to accurately weigh the financial and logistical costs and benefits of the major purchase.

Police departments and sheriff’s offices throughout the state manage their fleets both by sharing vehicles and assigning officers their own. Both have different advantages and disadvantages, he said.

“It’s very preliminary right now,” he said. “We’re just starting to gather this data to see if it makes sense.”

Neither the sheriff nor any of the commissioners returned requests for comment.

Employees’ union encouraged by spending

The union that represents a majority of the sheriff’s employees in Portage County saw the department’s largesse as a positive sign heading into this year’s contract negotiations.

As the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association prepares to negotiate new three-year contracts for roughly 90 percent of the Portage County Sheriff’s Office employees, the sheriff’s willingness to grant raises “can only help us,” said Brian Holb, the OPBA attorney negotiating with the county.

Holb said the command staff raises strengthen his case for higher pay for the employees he represents. Holb represents five bargaining units within the sheriff’s office, each comprising different groups of employees.

“If you’ve got a new sheriff coming in, and he’s in some cases giving $20,000 or $25,000 raises to people, I think that makes a pretty strong case for the union,” Holb said. “Not only is the willingness there to give the raises, but the money is too.”

The union opted to extend its current contract with the Board of County Commissioners to give the new sheriff time to settle into the office. Bargaining for the new contracts will begin once the county’s attorney sets dates. Holb hopes negotiations will conclude within a few months.

“We’re not going to say we’re upset with anything because we don’t know what bargaining is going to look like for us,” Holb said. “At the end of the day, I guess a rising tide raises all boats.”

As part of a countywide salary update, the commissioners already allocated enough in the sheriff’s budget to raise his union employees’ salaries by 1.5 percent, Bragg said. During Thursday’s county commission meeting, all three commissioners agreed that sheriff’s office employees are underpaid.

Bragg said he couldn’t estimate whether the sheriff will exceed the roughly $14 million budget the commissioners allocated to him.

“It’s difficult to look at a one-week pay and say they’re over budget or under budget,” he said. “The key is over the course of the year. Given that this is January, and they have $13 million to work with, there’s a lot of ways to make adjustments over the course of a year to still stay within that budget.”

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

Clarification: This article has been updated to remove a comment that Christian-Bennett made during the meeting about cruisers sitting idle in the parking lot. The comment did not provide proper context.