The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department will continue to provide security support at the Watertown International Airport following a week of public wrangling over complaints about a personnel shortage in the department.
Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns said he has been trying to fill three vacancies in his department since November.
Following the retirement of a deputy Thursday, the tally of vacancies went to four, a number Mr. Burns said made sustaining both security operations at the airport and road patrol duties impossible.
At least two of the department's requests to fill vacancies were granted this week.
“We have to provide security, which means people with law enforcement training, at the airport,” said Legislator Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing and chairman of the county Board of Legislators' General Services Committee, which oversees the airport's and Sheriff's Department's budgets. “Everybody just work together and we'll make it happen. We have too much invested in that project.”
County Highway Superintendent and Airport Manager James L. Lawrence Jr. said his main concern is “just to make sure that we have a law enforcement officer present.”
According to the county's contract with the Transportation Security Administration, a local law enforcement officer has to be present for passenger screening.
The airport, which the county took over in 2006, had 18,875 departures and 20,278 arrivals last year.
When the county began managing operations there, the TSA provided a subsidy that allowed the county to hire four additional deputies to help with security.
While that money has not disappeared, it has been greatly reduced in the ensuing years, county officials said.
County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said the decision to hire new deputies had “absolutely nothing to do with the airport situation” and the county was simply backfilling positions that had been vacated when Deputy Paul W. Trudeau was promoted to undersheriff on Feb. 8 and when Sgt. Kevin M. Amann was promoted in November to replace Lt. Michael S. Peterson, who retired in September.
Mr. Hagemann said the new undersheriff approached him Monday to ask about hiring replacements for the open positions. Permission to begin accepting applicants was given Tuesday night following Board of Legislators committee meetings.
The county has delayed filling a position vacated in November and will likely not quickly act to replace Deputy Joseph D. Murtha, who retired this week.
Mr. Hagemann said the county has been waiting for a report — an “educational update” — on how personnel in the Sheriff's Department's law enforcement division is being utilized.
He said the county government has been downsizing overall and that, with the diminished TSA funds, the four positions added in 2006 may no longer be affordable or warranted.
The salaries and benefits for those deputies, which would have at one time come from the TSA money, will now be paid by county taxpayers.
Mr. Hagemann said without background information from Mr. Burns, the county will have difficulty getting a handle on whether the remaining two vacancies should be filled.
The report was requested last March, but Mr. Hagemann said the county has not heard a response.
Mr. Burns and the Board of Legislators have clashed over the last few months about a variety of issues, including concerns about jail overcrowding and allegations of misconduct within the department.
County legislators recently asked the Public Integrity Bureau of the state Attorney General's office to look into a Dec. 1 incident involving a deputy who was discovered with a bottle of bourbon in his patrol vehicle and conflicting reports about how the department handled the disciplining of the individuals involved.
The response from the Attorney General's office is expected at the Board of Legislators' meeting Tuesday.
Mr. Hagemann said the administration has had “good, steady” communication with the undersheriff in regard to the staffing issue and characterized the relationship as “very positive.”
The contract between the county and TSA is up for renewal this year and will come before the board's General Services Committee on March 12, Mr. Hagemann said. It will be a four-year contract.