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Utah law enforcement officers — who were told in April that their security services at state-owned liquor stores were no longer needed — are now being offered their jobs back for a 24 percent pay cut.

The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) decided it would start using a private security service, saying a single contract would be more affordable than the current practice of hiring off-duty police officers from cities where stores are located. In the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, the DABC is expected to spend $460,000 for security.

Now, the DABC said it plans to also hire police officers where possible but at a lower pay rate.

The budget "only allows for DABC to pay armed, post-certified security officers a maximum of $19 per hour," Deputy Director Tom Zdunich wrote in a letter to local security officials. Officers had been paid $25 an hour.

The new offer is an insult to veteran police officers like Tracey Creno.

"Once it's taxed, we'll be making $14 an hour," Creno told the state liquor commission Tuesday.

Creno has worked security at the Sandy liquor store as a second job for 13 years. She told the board that the standard pay for off-duty police officers is $30 to $45.

"We're not just there to collect a paycheck and buy booze," Creno told the board. She said officers are there to keep the public safe, protect the state's investment by helping employees identify fake IDs and counterfeit money, and "prevent robbery, theft and violence toward employees."

"You can bring in private security," she told the commission. "But all you're going to do is call the cops at the end of the day."

The pay cut, according to DABC officials, was necessary because the Legislature slashed the department's operating budget by $500,000 for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1. The DABC has done other things to make ends meet, including leaving vacant positions unfilled and offering an $8,000 early retirement bonus to qualified employees.

The liquor-budget cuts come at a time when the department is making record profits for the state. During the current fiscal year, state liquor sales were up 7.6 percent.

The DABC, however, does not keep any of the profits. State law requires the department to return all its funds to the state, and the Legislature sets the department budget. Most of the liquor funds go into the general operating fund, and sales-tax revenues go toward the school-lunch and public-safety programs.

The security issue is just one more blow to employee morale at Utah's 43 state-owned liquor stores. For years, liquor store employees have been paid low wages, and a majority are part-time workers who don't receive health insurance or other state benefits.

And the situation seems to be getting worse, according to critics. The DABC has been using attrition in recent months to balance its budget. Seven managers now each oversee two stores, and one manager oversees three stores. When an area supervisor quit recently, the DABC also decided not to replace him and will redistribute the work among the two remaining area managers.

With managers spread across multiple stores, critics say assistant managers are being called upon to take on more tasks at a time when liquor stores are already understaffed and are often unable to keep up with increased demand. Employees are unable to stock shelves in a timely manner and customers wait in longer checkout lines, said Kerri Adams, a retired DABC employee who worked as the liquor department's human-resource specialist and training manager.

The policy, she told the board during a meeting Tuesday, is "causing systematic failure."

Commission member Olivia Agraz expressed sympathy, saying employees "deserve more respect."

"They need to have ownership and pride in what they do, and you can't do that when you are underpaid," she said. "And you can't do it when you have to manage two or three stores."

Gov. Gary Herbert's office has been inundated with complaints about liquor stores and employees and has made efforts to improve the situation, his spokesman Marty Carpenter said in a prepared statement.

"Over the past several months, we have listened and continue to listen to the concerns raised about the DABC, and we are currently in the process of implementing a number of changes," he said. The changes include:

• Increase inventory and wine selection at six stores in Salt Lake, Ogden and Park City.

• Reduce paperwork and processes so managers have more time to focus on their work.

• Improve the vendor supply chain to improve how stores receive shipments.

• Assigning a specialist from the Department of Human Resource Management to work with employees who have concerns.

"It also is worth pointing out," Carpenter said, "one of the two new [DABC] board appointees, Neil Berube, is the president and CEO of Associated Foods, and we look forward to his expertise in making certain our retail operations are running smoothly."