By Mark Waite
TONOPAH — Nye County commissioners Tuesday declined to take action on a letter from the county’s Safety Committee objecting to staffing and safety concerns at the new Pahrump jail.
District Attorney Brian Kunzi said grievances filed by the county’s sheriff’s deputies union are still active, though they’ve been denied by Sheriff Tony DeMeo and County Manager Pam Webster. The committee could take it to a federal arbitrator as a next step.
Kunzi attempted to keep the discussion out of the public meeting.
“These facts they claim as facts are highly contested, totally false and a lot of bad assumptions that go into this, and quite frankly that’s why I’m recommending, grievances are not dead. A grievance would be dead only if they choose not to go to the next step,” the district attorney said.
“We have not found any evidence of any substance there are any safety issues in this jail operation based on the operational demands by the sheriff. Until we receive any evidence, substantive evidence, they have been asked to provide to us, there is nothing for us to go forward with,” he said.
Kunzi called it a union issue that was blown out of proportion and accused the Nye County Law Enforcement Association NCLEA of going beyond the bounds of the collective bargaining agreement.
“We have been given not one piece of any factual evidence that would suggest that there is any safety issue in this jail and until we get that type of information, there is absolutely nothing we can do from a management standpoint,” he said.
A letter signed by Safety Committee Chairman Qiana Medici said the staffing concerns were brought to the attention of the safety committee on July 19 and follow-up reports were presented in September, October and November. The jail opened in late October.
Medici’s letter dated Nov. 20 to commissioners reads, “what began as staffing level concerns have expanded to concerns regarding inadequate training of facility operations and faulty communications placing both Nye County sheriff deputies and inmates in danger.”
Grievances previously reported in the Pahrump Valley Times referred to not having a fire escape plan in place to doors locking deputies in cells or opening on their own. Staffing levels are inadequate and there wasn’t enough training before the jail opened, grievances state.
NCLEA unsuccessfully filed a court action earlier to prevent the new jail from opening.
Det. David Boruchowitz, president of NCLEA, said the county commission meeting was the appropriate venue since a judge ruled against the union.
“The commissioners are certainly concerned with the safety of our employees,” he said.
Boruchowitz said there are 17 deputies at the Pahrump jail and more 100 prisoners as of Tuesday. A safety study suggested there should be 31 deputies if the jail was filled to its capacity of 224 inmates.
“If we were even close to that, our members would certainly feel a little safer in that environment,” he said.
Assistant Sheriff Rick Marshall said there are 107 prisoners in the Pahrump jail at the moment, but 25 have been temporarily moved there while the control panel at the Tonopah jail is fixed. They will be returning Monday or Tuesday, he said.
“The safety committee states that they’ve had these meetings yet no one from the sheriff’s office is participating in it. We have no idea what reports they’re relying on,” Marshall told commissioners.
Commissioner Dan Schinhofen said he took the matter seriously and wanted County Manager Pam Webster to get with members of the safety committee to determine the criteria used to come up with the report.
Commissioner Joni Eastley vehemently disagreed.
“The function of this board of county commissioners is to set forth the budget for the sheriff of Nye County to conduct his business. We gave the sheriff money, we budgeted the sheriff money to maintain his operations all over the county,” she said.
“Staffing is not our concern. The sheriff is free to do with his funds, with the money we gave him. If he wants to increase staffing in the jail, he is free to transfer employees from other areas.”
Commissioners took Eastley’s advice and took no action.
Schinhofen said he’d like to know how the safety committee arrived at its conclusion the new jail is unsafe. He said public opinion has already created the impression commissioners aren’t concerned.