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Courthouse privatization plan shelved

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office has backed away from a plan to outsource courthouse security jobs to a private security firm, after weeks of negotiations among the office, county attorneys and the workers’ union, which claimed that the move violated a collective-bargaining agreement and state law.

The courthouse security detail, which is staffed by once-retired sheriff’s deputies, has been chronically understaffed as deputies retire or leave for other reasons. In October, just 21 of 30 courthouse security jobs were filled, which is why Sheriff Dan Houston started looking for other ways to fill the gap.

But officials at the local branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said that privatizing courthouse security was just an effort by the sheriff’s office to “test the waters” to see which public agencies it could privatize, part of what AFSCME said was a larger effort to outsource union jobs.

The union then threatened to file an injunction against the move, arguing that the proposal violated both the union’s agreement with the sheriff’s office and state law, which states that the job of so-called “courthouse security specialists,” the title given to the deputies staffing the courthouse, could be given only to sworn officers.

Negotiations continued for several weeks until the parties reached an agreement last week. The fix, which is aimed at maintaining the collective bargaining agreement and attracting more applicants, will be in place until the union agreement expires in July 2015, said Richard Sawin, the president of the courthouse security specialist union, which is under AFCSME.

As part of the agreement, the sheriff’s office will pay some regular deputies overtime to staff the courthouse when needed, and the sheriff will also restore the fully commissioned status of the deputies working there now. Houston stripped courthouse deputies of that status several years ago, Sawin said.

Giving those deputies status as regular officers is intended to encourage transfers from other law-enforcement agencies, Sawin said.

“Nobody wanted to come here and give up their full commission status,” he said.

Chief Deputy Jason Katz of the sheriff’s office said two applicants are in the final stages of joining the courthouse staff, which should ease some of the pressure to get the staffing levels up to par. Katz said the sheriff’s office looks forward to continuing to work with the union to ensure that the courthouse is secure.

Sawin said the decision to move away from privatizing the deputies’ jobs will, in addition to preserving union jobs, make courthouse guests and employees safer, because deputies have the experience and tools necessary to prevent anyone from entering the building with a weapon, or from threatening judges.

“We can handle situations a lot easier because of our experience than, say, a rookie officer coming in here,” he said. “It helps de-escalate a lot of things.”

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