About 50 Sonoma County inmates soon will be bused to Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, part of an effort by the Sheriff's Office to ease the load on overworked jail deputies.
"It's not something we want to do, but it's the best thing for the health and safety of our staff," Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker said.
Correctional deputies have worked an increasing amount of overtime in recent years because of short staffing brought on by layoffs and budget cuts during the recession, Walker said.
That was exacerbated in 2012 by a roughly 13 percent increase in the number of jail inmates as the result of prison realignment — the state's shift of lower-level criminals to county jails.
The Sheriff's Office also has struggled with two concurrent trends: A significant number of its correctional deputies are retiring or leaving the force, while the department has had difficulty filling vacant positions — many of them restored only in the past year as the county's budget has recovered.
The combination of factors has led to considerably longer work weeks for the jail's sworn personnel, driving up county costs for overtime and raising concerns about employee safety, sheriff's officials said.
"It takes a physical and emotional toll on the staff," Walker said. "When you're on your feet for 16 hours at a time, how long is it before you're out on an injury?"
Excessive overtime is not a new issue for the jail. The subject has surfaced periodically over the past decade. In 2004, a county grand jury report found that the jail was understaffed despite a recent hiring effort and that sheriff's officials needed to do more to stem a "vicious cycle" of burnout and injury.
At the time, Sheriff Bill Cogbill said that the report echoed concerns he had raised about staffing levels at the jail.
The county's deal to transfer local inmates to Alameda County was first reported this week by the Bay Area News Group.
Sonoma County payroll records over the past four years reveal the latest pattern in the jail's staffing expenditures. Overtime costs for the division's sworn personnel increased 65 percent from 2010 to 2013, from about $2.7 million to $4.4 million, according to a Press Democrat analysis of the records.
Overall salary costs for correctional deputies, sergeants, lieutenants, captains and temporary staff in those posts rose only by about 2 percent in the same period, from $21.96 million to $22.35 million, the payroll records show.
Staffing levels returned in 2013 to about what they were in 2010, with 228 sworn personnel in the jail division, including temporary employees.
The overtime, sometimes more than 60 hours per month per deputy, has led to an increasing number of correctional deputies unavailable for work because of injury, a recent Sheriff's Office report found.
In December 2013, 67 correctional deputies were unavailable for work, up from 39 in July 2012, according to the report, provided to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in February.
Reducing the jail's inmate population by 50 people will allow officials to close one unit at the North County Detention Facility and reduce overtime by about 10 hours per person each month, Walker said.
Doing so will cost Sonoma County $85 per inmate per day, less than the jail's average daily cost of $135.