Tuesday evening, Natrona County Sheriff Gus Holbrook asked for a few minutes to meet privately with dozens of deputies and other employees on the first floor of the old courthouse.

Holbrook muted his words, but the marble halls could not suppress the noise of several rounds of applause when he spoke.

He got what he wanted -- a 5 percent pay raise coupled with the 2 percent cost of living allowance the Natrona County Commission granted to all county employees in the budget, Holbrook said later.

That goes into effect in the next paycheck, but it comes with a condition, he said.

Gus Holbrook. Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
Gus Holbrook. Tom Morton, Townsquare Media

"What I needed was some assurance that if I had a shortage in my budget I do give the wage adjustment to the deputies, that they (the commission) would cover that shortage," Holbrook said. "That's all I needed was that assurance."

He met with the deputies and spoke after the public hearing for the annual county commission's budget approval that usually attracts only a handful of spectators.

This year was different; standing room only different.

Holbrook, deputies and their families, and friends packed the former courtroom on the second floor to object to the proposed $48.5 million budget, a virtually status quo budget from the 2017-2018 budget of $47.2 million. Of the $48.5 million, 38 percent or $18.4 million, goes to law and order including salaries, operating the adult and juvenile jails, emergency management, security for the Townsend Justice Center, and other expenses.

Despite the cost of living allowance for all employees, the Sheriff's Office needed more for its own survival, according to Holbrook, some deputies, a couple of candidates for commission, and area residents who spoke a the public hearing.

Several years ago, the Sheriff's Office, which patrols a county the size of Connecticut, eliminated three deputy positions. It was down nine deputies in the past fiscal year, and Holbrook said he returned about $1 million to the county because he couldn't fill these positions. Eighteen employees are eligible for retirement right now.

The lack of pay raises during the past half-decade had flattened morale, required some of them to work second jobs to stay even financially, and thinned ranks. Deputies could just walk across the street to the Casper Police Department and make more money, or move elsewhere.

"A starting policeman makes $500 more a month than a starting deputy," Holbrook said. "We need the parity between the two."

The crowd agreed.

Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
Tom Morton, Townsquare Media

Tracy Lamont said the county's first priority is law enforcement.

Shawn Johnson, a deputy and a Casper City Councilmember, said the city has made police recruitment a priority because it, too, has lost officers. A new police hire will receive a $3,000 bonus, for example.

Former Commissioner Terry Wingerter, who is running for office again, said the commission is taking a risk by not granting the 5 percent raise requested by Holbrook.

After the public hearing, Commissioner Matt Keating made a motion for a $616,000 wage adjustment for the budget, but that died for lack of support.

The county will either spend the money now, or spend more later, because the hiring and training of a new deputy over five years costs $423,000, Keating added.

All the commissioners said they fully supported the Sheriff's Office, but the budget didn't allow for any changes.

Rob Hendry said the budget was balanced, and cited recent economic data indicating tax revenues were improving. The county is required by law to approve a balanced budget.

But they said they were willing to take the risk that revenues will improve that will cover a 5 percent pay raise. That agreement was not put in writing, however.

Even so, Holbrook said later the agreement will help with recruiting not only because of the pay raise but because of the respect in the community.

Unlike the Casper Police Chief, who is hired by the city, the voters themselves hire the sheriff, he said. "It's a thing we put upon the deputies is they serve the citizens of Natrona County."

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