St. Mary's County is unable to fill new sheriff's deputy positions and existing vacancies because applicants are going to neighboring counties that pay more, Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar told county commissioners on Tuesday.

Voorhaar compared the salaries of his department with those of deputies in Calvert and Charles counties and concluded that officers' salaries must be raised if St. Mary's is to be able to compete for the best candidates.

"Qualified applicants are now shopping around. They're going where the best benefits are and, of course, the most money. That's why we're here today," Voorhaar said.

"My own hope is we don't prolong this . . . longer than necessary because it's a critical issue," Voorhaar said. "It's really a public safety issue."

Starting out, sheriff's deputies' salaries in Southern Maryland average in the lower $30,000 range. But, according to Voorhaar's salary study, officers' salaries in St. Mary's begin to significantly lag behind the other two counties as deputies move up the ranks. For instance, first-class deputies in Charles average about $46,000 in annual salary; in Calvert, about $44,000; and in St. Mary's, about $41,000.

The differences become even greater in higher ranks: Sergeants in Charles are paid an average of about $60,000; about $56,000 in Calvert; and about $53,000 in St. Mary's.

Capt. Steven M. Doolan said benefits were not included in the comparative study because the county is preparing to conduct a separate study of the earnings of all county employees, an analysis that will include total compensation--salaries and benefits.

Calvert County was faced with the same problem until it recently increased salaries, Doolan said.

"We're behind [in pay] in every rank," Doolan said.

The result of the salary gap, he said, is that far more applicants flock to Charles. In the most recent hiring cycle, about 60 people applied for 15 positions in St. Mary's. In Charles County, 313 applicants sought 17 slots, and in Calvert, 79 people applied for 10 slots.

Voorhaar said two of his department's best applicants recently decided to accept positions in Charles County.

The commissioners were sympathetic to the sheriff on Tuesday but didn't act on his request to increase deputies' salaries. One proposal he submitted would bring St. Mary's to the same level as Calvert County and would cost the county $263,000 a year. A second proposal, which would increase salaries to Charles County levels, would cost about $446,000 a year.

"I think we agree with you that something needs to be done but we probably won't get it done as fast you'd like us to do it," said County Commissioner Shelby P. Guazzo (R-Chaptico).

"It seems to be a little ambiguous. We need to nail it down," said Board of Commissioners President Julie B. Randall (D-At Large). Randall told the sheriff that in order to properly evaluate the salary upgrade proposals, the comparisons must include other compensation: vacations, holidays, health and retirement benefits, and financial incentives for higher education.

But Voorhaar said that even without a detailed analysis, he knows that St. Mary's deputies' benefits lag behind those in Calvert and Charles. For example, Charles County deputies receive five personal days while those in St. Mary's receive three to 12 hours. In Charles County, deputies who work toward an associate's or college degree receive financial incentives. In St. Mary's, "we offer them nothing," the sheriff said.

County Administrator Mortimer Smedley said the county is close to awarding contracts for the overall compensation study.

CAPTION: Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar is asking the county to increase salaries.